Getting past the beginning of a novel - Advanced writing tips

So you’ve got a bodacious idea and you’ve written the first 20,000 or 30,000 words! You’ve got the gumption to start and the grit to put your butt in the chair and write through the wee hours of the morning or on your coffee breaks or whenever it is you have manage to squeeze in your writing time.

Congratulations! You’ve already beat out 99.75 percent of the competition. A lot of expert writing coaches like to quote the “Five percent rule.” The five percent rule says that of all the potential novel writers with an idea only 5 percent of them will ever start on it. And only 5 percent of those who do anything with their idea will make the time and discipline themselves to sit down and write regularly.

Creative Commons image by Misticsartdesign via Pixabay.jpg

Creative Commons image by Misticsartdesign via Pixabay.jpg

I’m not sure if the numbers are actually that exact. But if you’ve reached this point, the end of the beginning of a novel, you have fortitude and courage. That’s undeniable.

And you have also just run into the steepest and scariest writing hurdle yet. According to the five percent rule, getting past the beginning should only cull out another 95 percent of the prospective authors out there, but this one feels bigger to a lot of us somehow.

Maybe it is because the people who didn’t make the first five percent cut really weren’t serious at all, so there was no pain involved. They just had an idea and didn’t pursue it. And the people, who didn’t get around to making a real start and didn’t manage the discipline or time to put their butts in their chairs. didn’t really sacrifice anything beyond mental anguish and a fair amount of whining.

On the other hand, the writers—yes, now really anyone who got this far is a writer—who falter at around the 30,000 word mark have worked hard. They’ve disciplined themselves, made real sacrifices to get the time to write and faced down fear and shame. And still… only a few will make it.

Writing coaches are supposed to make it seem like all the others will fail but you personally are the star who will not. I’m not making that call. You’re one reader and the bitter reality is that if one hundred writers at this stage of a novel read my blog, only about five of you will actually finish that novel. Fewer yet will ever see it published.

BUT… (And this is a big but.)

These statistics are about the novel, not about you. Most writers—I might even say, “hopefully all writers”—will start at least one novel they toss before they finish their first book. If you don’t, how do you learn and become an awesome writer?

We need ten thousand hours of writing to make a master, just like every skilled craft or art. So, if your novel falls by the wayside, that doesn’t mean you fail as a writer—just that you need to succeed with a different novel.

But this post is for those who have an idea they are convinced is a winner, those who have reached the end of the beginning and have the proverbial genitalia to keep on.

Let’s face it. It’s heavy going. No one gets past this one without some sweat, tears and likely some blood, whether fictional or actual.

If you are an expert plotter and have spent years on world building and have a detailed storyboard, maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about and you’re sailing through your manuscript without any trouble. But then again, if that were the case, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

If you’re like me and most other intrepid wordsmiths, you know the dreaded 30,000 word marker. Very possibly you’ve been here before. Maybe several times. And it might as well be the grim reaper.

There is something about reaching this point in a manuscript that makes writers wilt like that houseplant you forgot to water since you started this novel. No, you didn’t just run out of gas. It happens to all of us.

You start with an exciting idea and all the enthusiasm that goes along with it. There is very likely at least one early scene and possibly an ending and several other scenes firmly in your head before you start. You have a character or characters you like, a great setting and a unique premise. That can get you through 10,000 words without breaking a sweat.

You’ve got the opening description, the initial action and the premise to describe. In short, you’ve got clear goals that anyone with a couple of years of dabbling in writing can handle.

But I hate to break it to you. That’s the easy stuff.

Beginnings are important and must be brilliant and all that, but you know you can go back and edit, so you probably didn’t sweat rivers over it. Now, however, things get hairy.

You get to a certain point in writing your novel (usually somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words depending on the type of plot you’re using and how much plotting you did early on) and you suddenly feel like you’re slogging through thick mud while carrying a fifty-pound pack.

How did this happen? You didn’t start out carrying a pack. Did all that positive energy just evaporate? Are you just a wimp without staying power?

No and no.

There is some small comfort in knowing that your exhaustion is completely justified. And it isn’t just that you’ve been cooped up in your basement staring at a screen for too long, although if that’s the case, remember that pacing yourself applies to writing as much as it does to running a marathon.

The 30,000-word marker is a different sort of exhaustion though.

Here’s the first key to getting through it: That fifty-pound pack is real.

OK, you can’t actually weigh it on a scale. But you are carrying a massive load after writing 30,000 words. You are carrying around in your brain all the bits and pieces, character traits, setting details and subplots that you subconsciously or consciously know you are going to need to remember later on. Depending on how many notes you’ve been keeping and how organized you are, this mental burden can be enormous.

Hopefully, even if you’re a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser, you have written down some notes about your major characters and main plot, at least the basics up until now. Pantsers are more likely to collapse at this point than plotters. It is one of the places where plotters can be justified in a bit of their smugness.

But plotters will have a burden too. Even if you write everything down scrupulously, you will be memorizing where you wrote what and how to find each piece of information. And there are always details you didn’t put in your notes, which is why your notes are not actually the novel, though their word count may be pushing a close second.

So, the first thing to do when you feel the sluggish doldrums at the end of the beginning descend upon you is to update your notes. Even if you’re an avowed pantser, now is the time to do a bit of plotting. Write character sketches if you haven’t yet. Make an outline of your plot or a story board, if at all possible. As you put down some of these burdens on paper, you will feel lighter.

If you have extensive notes, look through them. Make sure they are organized and remind yourself where to find things. Think through any plot holes that may have cropped up. Untangle and discard what has turned out not to be useful. Lighten the load.

The end of the beginning is also a good time to take a break from writing if you’re an intensive writer, spending hours writing each day. Get out in nature, spend some time with people or sleep all the hours you want for once, whichever meets your needs.

But don’t let go entirely. Many a good book has died because the writer went on a break at this point and didn’t actually come back. The break may feel way too good.

Set a limit or a deadline to get back at it. And then sit down and get back into it, no matter what.

OK, not entirely “no matter what.” As I said before, some projects need to die. Every writer needs to leave a few unfinished novels on their creative compost pile. So, don’t break yourself on something you have realized wasn’t a keeper. But if you are still convinced this is a keeper, put your head down and power through.

That is the third thing—and possibly the most crucial—about the end of the beginning. To some extent, you just have to push through this difficult time. It is likely that your plot or your characters are more complicated than you thought. You’ve realized you need to go back and change some things. Or you’re worried because you still haven’t figured out some major plot points coming up.

Whatever the specifics, this is a tough stretch. It’s uphill and there is no second wind yet.

Remember again that you can edit later. Keep in mind that this is normal for writers. It’s a natural part of the process of writing a novel. Take your best shot at how the plot needs to go and write it.

When you get to the 50,000- or 60,000-word mark and those last few puzzle pieces drop into place in your plot conundrum, you can go back and fix whatever you’re messing up now.

Yes, puzzle pieces dropping seemingly of their own accord happens far more often than a purely rational view of the writing process would indicate. And yes, you are messing things up at this point. It’s pretty much impossible not to. Don’t fret about it.

Getting past the end of the beginning is almost always messy or rugged or both. But by putting down some of your mental burden, taking a carefully limited break and pushing through the urge to throw it all in the recycling bin, you can crawl over this hurdle.

Advanced Writing Tips: Problematic and irritating disability tropes to avoid in writing

I'm going to make an assumption here. I'm assuming you as a writer, whether you have a disability or not, want to write pedal-to-the-metal, amazing plots with characters that grab readers by the throat and don't let go until they cough up cash for your next book. 

Or something like that. 

So this is not a whiny post about all the bad, prejudiced books out there that treat disability issues poorly. This is an Advanced Writing Tips post to help you avoid pitfalls that distract, lose and piss off readers. I happen to be legally blind, but I'm a writer first and I have to think things through when I write about characters with disabilities just like anyone else. 

Creative Commons image by Tim Evanson

Creative Commons image by Tim Evanson

We want our writing to be fresh and original. That goes without saying. We don't want to rehash the same stuff people have been doing for decades. That's boring. We also want our characters to be emotionally realistic (i.e. relatable for readers).  When it comes to writing about characters with disabilities it is all too easy to get sucked into cliched tropes that not only drag the story into old ruts but also make the characters more annoying than relatable.

And in many cases, even when the writing is good, tired tropes simply piss off readers with disabilities, who are at least 15 percent of the reading population and thus a hefty chunk of your market. An even heftier chunk if you count their close family members, who will likely be just as pissed off by annoying tropes.

One of the sticky problems of disability tropes is that avoiding one cliche too vigorously can make you stumble into another by accident. The most important thing to keep in mind when writing about a character with a disability is that people with disabilities are much more like abled people than they are different.

So if your character has a disability, that probably isn’t their main characteristic. It’s something of side importance most of the time, even if the story centers on something related to it. Your character has many interests that aren’t what you would expect from that sort of disabled person.

For example, I am legally blind but I’m pretty good at graphic design because I happen to have a brain wired for visual thinking. Bad combo but I didn’t get to pick. I’ll never be great at graphic design, which I might have been if my eyes weren’t screwed up. I am, on the other hand, terrible at music, which is often a stereotypical interest for blind characters. I do like music and I tried hard to play the flute for five years as a child but I was never very good. It was way harder to memorize all that music than it seems when blind musicians do it.

Other than that, here are the most common story pitfalls to avoid when dealing with a disabled character:

Creative Common image by Wheelchair Basketball Canada 

Creative Common image by Wheelchair Basketball Canada 

  1. Bounce-back magicians: Characters who become disabled and immediately (within months, weeks or even days) are able to function in amazing top form, handling everything without help and having better developed other senses or muscles. (Yes, people with disabilities find other ways of accomplishing things and can function fast and happily in almost every situation a abled person can but it takes years to learn the specialized skills, to develop different muscles and to learn to read other senses to compensate for a sensory loss. It takes years and often specialized training and education. There are already way too many stories and movies out there about a disabled character's miraculous recovery and given the propensity of fiction to speed up medical miracles, we come across characters who adapt unrealistically quickly. This is not only old and boring, it is also highly annoying to people actually struggling with these issues. There are very few stories or movies that portray a realistic struggle and show the grit of real people with disabilities. Possibly a good plot line or six there.)
  2. Superheroes in non-magical stories: Characters with super powers or super sensitive senses where they don't belong. (I am legally blind and I can throw pebbles across a ditch to tell how far I have to jump by sound, I can often sense obstacles by echolocation and I can almost flawlessly tell what my young children are up to in the other room by hearing. But I am sick to death of the cliched character who is a martial arts master and totally blind, who can hear how their opponent is swinging a sword so precisely that they always win easily. Yes, blind people sometimes appear to have super hearing to sighted people but controlled hearing tests show that we have no better technical hearing ability than anyone else. What is true is that people who have lived without a particular sense for a long time (think decades) learn to pay much more attention to their remaining senses and interpret meaning from things others would ignore. People with various disabilities have adapted skills that abled people have because they are not forced to practice such specific skills minute by minute for years. But this is about skill and muscle, not super powers. Despite my abilities in interpreting sounds, I'm still pretty tone deaf and have a terrible ear for recognizing voices. There are things you can train and things you can't. Keeping this realistic and ensuring that your disabled character has had years to adapt to their disability, if you want them to be really skilled, are essential to making characters relatable.)
  3. Gracious suicides: Disabled characters who nobly commit suicide to escape their unbearable existence and reduce the burdens on abled characters. (This is another type of trope entirely and it is the kind that will get your book or movie thrown across many rooms with enough force to break the binding. The movie success of "Me Before You" has made this trope famous recently but it has been around for decades, probably centuries. If you have any confusion on this, here's the crux. Being disabled is not an unbearable existence and portraying people with disabilities as a burden whose best shot at heroism is to commit suicide to lift their burden from others is wrong in so many ways. But from the writer's perspective it is just cliched, overdone and old hat. It is also maudlin and melodramatic, and it relegates a major character to a paper cutout prop for other characters. Just don't do it. Euthanasia can be explored in much more realistic and mature ways.)
  4. Inspiro-porn stars: Characters whose primary purpose is to inspire others through their stoic courage despite suffering. (There’s a term for this. It’s called “inspiration porn.” It’s like porn because it is designed to generate a strong, involuntary emotional response in the reader/viewer and it makes the reader/viewer feel good and almost euphoric for a short time at the expense of reducing another person or character to a prop for the edification of others. People with disabilities are not any more stoic than other people and they shouldn't be expected to be. Disabled characters should be allowed to become overwhelmed and emotional about difficult things in their lives, related to disability or not, just like any other characters. Certainly, if you are writing about a hardened detective or other James-Bond type hero who happens to have a disability and he/she is stoic and doesn't complain when their arm is severed in a fight because that's just what kind of individual he/she is, that's a different matter. But it is not “courageous” to simply live with a disability and not go kill yourself (see trope #3). Most people with disabilities live pretty happy lives where their struggles are often not related to their disability. It can be irritating to deal with a society that isn’t ready to include our differences, but it isn’t like we lie in bed in the morning and muster the courage to live. We muster the patience to deal with ableist barriers and weird social reactions but that’s more patience than courage. It can take a lot of mental struggle for people who are newly disabled to see that their new situation is livable but people handle it in various ways due to temperament and all of those ways are normal and acceptable. Here too there are several good potential plot lines that have rarely, if ever, been explored.) 
  5. The crip in distress: The dependent invalid or the one who must be saved. (This is less common today but it used to be a big trope. It is still very tired. No one really wants to read stories where a secondary character is a disabled child or other who the hero is going to save from their terrible fate. I'm not going to belabor the point. Just avoid doing this. When you need a hero to save someone in order to be heroic, it is always better to make the person being saved a three-dimensional character as well. What would be a cliched "rescue plot" can gain immense punch with more careful characterization.)
  6. Last-minute cures: The plot arch in which the cure of the disability is the solution to the plot problem. (This is a huge one today,, which has kind of taken over the 19th and early 20th century trope number 5. I see stories far too often today where the plot revolves around a character wrestling with the psychological and physical effects of a disability. Sometimes the character is a mess and has to learn the courage and stoic fortitude in trope number 4 or the adaptations in trope 1 and toward the end of the story he or she does adapt and things look okay, tolerable and the disability is mastered. But the author betrays their internal belief that disability is still too terrible and the disability is cured in the end. So the character finds that they could live well with such a disability and then they are rewarded with a cure that takes the disability away so they don’t have to. This isn’t impossible in terms of a realistic event narrative but it has been done and done and done and it is far from the norm of disability. It displays an underlying assumption in society and on the part of the author that no adaptation or psychological resolution is actually good enough and the only positive outcome is to get rid of disability altogether.)
  7. Pre-adventure cures: The disabled character who is magically cured at the beginning of the story so that they can go on an adventure or be a hero. (This is a minor but highly annoying fantasy trope. Sometimes my pulse will quicken as I read the blurb on a new fantasy book that says the main character is disabled, only to find that the initial plot point is that the disability is magically cured, so that now the formerly sedentary protagonist can now go off on an adventure or become a hero. That's what happened in The Last Words of Will Wolfkin by Steven Knight. The message in stories like this is all too clear. People with disabilities are seen as helpless and useless. They can only be victims or people to be rescued, never a hero in their own right. This is a problem and the whole premise of the disability being cured in the first chapter is just weak and disappointing as a plot spur in any case.)
  8. Fakers and manipulators (This is one that will send me and many others into vicious bad review mode faster than any other. In fact, I’ll give a bad example right here as a bad review. Yes, I’m naming names. The Netflix series "The Good Wife" would be a fairly decent dramatic lawyer show except that it uses this trope several times. The one disabled major character in the show is a lawyer who slyly and manipulatively uses a tardive dyskinesia disability to derail arguments, manipulate judges, plead for sympathy from juries and so on and on and on. It is really all his character ever does. He is the only major disabled character and here this is finally a show with a disabled lawyer as a character. Another minor character is the son of a rival politician who has leukemia. The child is used as a media gimmick to gain public sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic politician. The fact that this show uses both these "faker" stereotypes without including other people with chronic illness or disability points to some serious bigotry somewhere in the production chain. Abled people are likely to protest that “Well, this happens in real life!” In fact, it almost does not happen. It is exceedingly rare for people to fake a disability in public to gain sympathy and it is impossible to fake a disability medically given medical technologies today. People with real disabilities do not fake or exaggerate their difficulties to get attention or sympathy. Yes, I know some beggars pretend to be missing a limb or to be blind to get sympathy and donations. These people are rare anomalies who you see relatively often because they place themselves in highly frequented areas. They are a tiny fraction of reality. The trope in fiction and the stereotype in real life that some non-disabled people fake a disability and some disabled people exaggerate their difficulties to get attention, sympathy or advantages is so tired that the dead horse has decomposed. Furthering this trope is unforgivable today in a society where everyone should know better. Works that promote it actively harm people with disabilities and cause us to be accosted and accused of faking at random moments in public. Every time an book or movie portrays such a stereotype, real events result in which disabled children and adults are mocked and dismissed. Do not do it. It's like portraying a black person as a monkey. Sure, some black children eat bananas and jump up and down pretending to be a monkey, just like some white children do. It happens. But we don't do it in fiction for very good reasons. The same goes for fictional portrayals of people faking disability. Disabilities are extremely varied and you won’t always understand why a mother with a white cane on the train who uses a disability transport card is reading a printed book to her children (that would be me). But it is just the way optics work and no one is faking.)
  9. Charity applause: Disabled protagonists who are good "for a disabled person." (This is a particularly tired one but it still comes up sometimes in children's literature. Much may be made of a character's accomplishments because they are pretty good at something "for a disabled person." There is a legitimately difficult line to walk for writers here. It is natural to write about the accomplishments of someone against the odds. We all know that it is an achievement for a wheelchair user to play wheelchair basketball. And a sports story about a kid's dream to be a star in wheelchair basketball is fair game. But it isn't attractive or interesting if the point of the story is that everyone claps for little Jimmy who tries to play with the abled kids but he's really very bad at it and the climax of the story is the one time he makes a basket. He was so good, considering he's disabled, but really he was awful by any other standard. Boring.)
  10. Automatic no-threat sign: A character's disability used to show that they are not a threat in competition. (Sometimes a secondary character in a story has all the hallmarks of a good, positive disabled character. It's often the best friend or sidekick of the main character. The thing is that the secondary character is disabled, and the assumption is made clear in the story that this means the disabled character will always be the follower and is never a competitor for top jobs. This character is a great confidante when it comes to love interests because he/she is "obviously" not in the running for romance. This is overused and obviously annoying. It's also very boring.)
  11. Prince or princess Not Sexy: The disabled hero who wins everything except love. (This is a special little trope that crops up every now and then. The most famous example is probably "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Disney musical. The hunchback did all the things most Disney princes do and won but instead of getting a beautiful princess and everlasting happiness in the end, his great prize is that he is tolerated in public. Causing your readers/viewers to gag on vomit during what is supposed to be the heartwarming end is usually not part of the plan. Don't do this.)
  12. Gimpiness as the evil trope: The villain who is obviously a villain because of a disability. (I am personally simply perplexed by this one. There are so many villains in modern culture who are disabled. They far outnumber the number of disabled protagonists. If any racial group was so universally portrayed as "the bad guys" it would be a topic of anti-discrimination activism. But today disability has replaced the dark visage as the quick and easy way to show who the villain is. They walk with a cane, breathe with a machine, need magic to keep their body together or whatever. There are theories about how this is related to a hard-wired human fear of deformity and disease. The first zombie movies were about AIDs victims and I am sure the cheap play on people's fears has something to do with it. But quick and easy or not, it is just as problematic as having all your villains be dark-looking. At the very least, we need to balance the number and major positioning of disabled protagonists.) 

I know this list might feel overwhelming. And contradictory. You shouldn't portray people with disabilities as too good but you can't make them villains either. You can't make your disabled characters too strong and resilient without risking them having "super powers" but you shouldn't let them become weak two-dimensional props in need of rescue either.

It often seems like it would be a lot easier to just not include characters with disabilities at all... which is what most writers have done for ages. The worst trope of all isn't actually on the list, because the worst message about disability that we can promote in our writing is voiceless obscurity. When we don't give a character here or there a disability we contribute to a society in which people with disabilities are ignored, dismissed and isolated. 

It may be hard to avoid the pitfalls, but it is worth it. Including a character with a disability in your story, even without making the story about that disability, opens up a large and hungry market for your work. When there is too little of something in books, readers want it. Write well about characters with disabilities and you'll get a boost in reader loyalty and discoverability. 

So do write about characters with disabilities. Just do it smart.

Writer-to-writer critique: the boot camp of the craft

The simple technique that will teach you to write better than any other method, class or book

For as long as there have been story-tellers, we have commented on one another's work. Writers, poets and bards alike--we are a mouthy bunch.

Sometimes these comments have taken the form of criticism, ridicule, jealousy or insult. And many writers and story-tellers have been greatly harmed by the comments of others, suffering blows to confidence and motivation. 

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

And yet, the comments of fellow writers can contain gold. I know of no other way to learn the craft of writing faster or better than through the sincere cooperation between two or more writers. And based on the comments of some of my favorite famous authors, it seems clear that no writer is ever "beyond critique" or at a level where the comments of colleagues can no longer help. 

Critique--the term used to differentiate constructive criticism from tearing down another writer--isn't just useful. If done correctly it can also provide great motivation and pleasure. It is very rare that anyone, other than another writer, wants to discuss in detail the ins and outs of your writing project.

Even your most avid readers (and your immediate family) are likely to grow weary of your writerly obsessions. This isn't that different from any other profession. My husband and his buddies can bore me to tears with endless technical discussions about surveying and cartography. (Just measure it and draw a line already! What is the big deal?)

My husband assures me that even though I think my profession is creative, vastly more fun and endlessly interesting, he finds long conversations on the finer points of writing just as boring. And this is why we need fellow writers. 

While the practical method of writer-to-writer critique may be well-known and may in fact seem intuitive to many, I have found that parts of it strike fear in new writers or lead others to abuse the trust and claim authority they don't have. Beyond that readers often don't understand the tenants of the system through which their favorite books, movies and TV shows are made. 

It is worth setting down the rules for critique. This is a starting point for writers' groups as well as useful information for everyone involved in the process.

1. There are skills that can be learned in writing. Experience is to be respected.

2. At the same time, a writer of any level can usefully critique the writing of a writer of any other level. The critique may have different uses, but even the critique of a novice can be helpful to an open-minded master. It is at the very least the honest impression of a reader. No such critique should be dismissed out of hand or ridiculed. 

3. Critique may be done for compensation, in trade or simply in good faith. Critique does not have to be reciprocal but the terms should be agreed upon in advance. Critique is always of value, even if it is not compensated in which case it is a valuable gift of time and attention.

4. On average, about seventy percent of comments in any given critique will be useful or pertinent to the writer. No writer is obligated to agree with or to use suggestions made by a critique partner. 

5. Rules of grammar and style vary geographically, culturally and between genres. Arguments about the absolute correctness of a change have limited use. It is worth stating clear reasons for one's belief. Style and grammar guidebooks are useful sources. However, in the end the final decision of rightness in the given context is the prerogative of the entity taking responsibility for publication--be that a publisher or a self-publishing author. 

6. Differences of opinion are inevitable. There is no single best POV, tense, voice, distance or style. Intentional grammatical errors are not illegal and have their uses. Questions over dialogue tags are a matter of continued debate. It is worth listening to writers of long experience, but in the end each must form one's own path. Insults do not become us. 

7. Keep in mind that, as in any creative profession, a minimum experience of ten thousand hours of active writing is considered the initiation level for a professional. However, this line is arbitrary and denotes only a level of experience, not the rightness of one's arguments or the marketability of one's work.

8. By the same token, what is correct and most seemly in writing is not always what is most marketable. Each writer has his or her own goals for writing and it is not the place of a critique partner to judge, only to give the most honest advice that individual can give.

9. We all have biases. I love first person narratives. I recently met a fellow author who hates first person. It's just personal taste. We can't help but have such biases and when we read the work of other writers those biases will get in the way. The more aware you are of your own biases the more useful your critique will be. When unable to entirely get past biases it is worth stating that you are biased on a particular issue, so that the writer can keep that in mind. That said, completely avoiding critique partners with biases against your POV or stylistic choices can weaken your writing. Remember that readers have biases too and our goal is hone our craft in every way possible.

10. Critique means honest advice to improve a piece of writing. Pure and simple. That can mean spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, voice, plot or description advice and more. It does not ever mean judgment upon the abilities or prospects of the writer. That is beyond the bounds and is never an appropriate topic for comment. 

How to write dialogue readers will devour

When we read, what we really want is human speech--yelling, chatting, laughing, screaming. The reader's heart yearns for companionship and adrenaline.

If you can bamboozle the reader into the fictive dream and give them fantastic conversation within it, they'll never want to leave.

Good dialogue can be achieved by following some basic rules. Excellent, grab'em-by-the-pituitary-gland-and-never-let-go dialogue takes preparation. 

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Here are the basic rules:

  1. Dialogue needs to be less formal than narration, even when it is between formal adults. Vocabulary should reflect spoken vocabulary, which is about one fifth of a character's reading vocabulary. You will not make your character sound dumb by having them use normal words. Overly formal dialogue with sentences too complete and words beyond the natural spoken vocabulary level of the type of character is the most common dialogue mistake by beginning writers.
  2. Reread lines of dialogue out loud and see if they sound natural. Use incomplete sentences, pauses, vague terms, extreme specifics and poor grammar where it is obvious that they would be used in real speech. But within reason! Dialogue must first and foremost be familiar and real to the reader. 
  3. Keep dialogue lines short. Most dialogue should be one sentence or less. Occasionally use two or three short sentences max unless your point is that the character is going on and on. And even then be cautious. Who wants to read in detail about a character giving a lecture?
  4. Dialogue should be more coherent and more concise than real speech. But remember "all things in moderation."
  5. Speech differences, slang and accents can be hinted at but do not change every word or sentence to match the difference or your text will become unreadable. Mark Twain was an incredible linguist and even so many readers have a very hard time deciphering his dialogue. Don't try this at home, folks. 
  6. Avoid obvious phrases of greetings and pleasantries unless you're emphasizing them to develop cultural setting (and even then do so sparingly). If two characters meet and each says "Hello, how are you?" hint that they did so in narration. Don't spell it out unless you have a damn good reason.
  7. "Late in, early out" applies because conversations are essentially scenes. Enter the conversation as late as possible while still giving all necessary information and leave as early as possible. Don't drag the reader through extraneous scaffolding.
  8. No "as you know, John" please! Do not have a character tell another character something both should logically know already simply in order to tell it to the reader. There are better ways to get facts across.
  9. And along with that last, don't "info dump" in dialogue. Work it in. Yes, "work" is the operative verb here. It is hard but it can be done. Information contained in dialogue must be primarily that which is natural for one character to tell another, not things the reader needs to know. Information for the reader can be contained in narration, setting and most importantly the behavior of characters.
  10. A note on tags: Mostly use the word "said." This is the exception to the rule you learned in high school language arts about using varied vocabulary and the most specific verb possible. The word "said" is almost invisible. Readers will simply understand who said something. Use other tags such as "stated," "argued," "cried" sparingly and only with good reason.
  11. A note on not using tags at all: In moderation, the tags can be cut altogether in some modern styles, especially in two-way conversations. As a general rule, tag the first lines of each character and then allow them to switch off. However, don't create strings of tag-less dialogue more than four switch-offs long. It forces readers to calculate rather than read. Try reading the dialogue aloud in a monotone and see if you would be confused about who is talking. The point is not to make the reader work. Readers are supposed to be in the fictive dream. Period.
  12. A note on actions as tags:  An even more advanced trick is to do away with standard tags involving "said" or an equivalent and use action and expression sentences instead. The key is to leave no doubt who is speaking without actually saying it. Example:  She ducked her head, looking at him out of the corner of her left eye. "I don't know. Do you think we should?" He coughed and spots of pink bloomed on his neck. "I... I..."
  13. On that note, consider the narration sprinkled in with the dialogue to be part of the dialogue itself. There have been some experiments with "dry dialogue," meaning using only the actual spoken lines without any indication of the character's actions or expressions. Usually these experiments also rely on a minimum of tag lines and they fail spectacularly. I'm not saying don't experiment, but gaining readers through this kind of experiment is equivalent to winning the lottery. It's extremely unlikely but writers do it anyway because experimenting is how everything good got invented.  When you're done experimenting and ready to write a story, make sure your dialogue includes lines of action. It is best if something is happening in the plot while the characters are speaking. But if your characters must have a conversation in which they are mostly just sitting there, you still need actions and the more sedentary the characters are the more detailed the actions need to be. Show the minute motions of hands, a flicker of emotion or picture what your character is reaching for. Watch people talk in real life. Very few people just sit motionless while they talk and if they did we would definitely notice it and put that in narration.
  14. Use the time warp. Finally, there is a strange sort of time warp that happens in fictional dialogue. Usually it means time passes more quickly in the story than the lines of dialogue can account for. Let's say ten minutes passes in your fictional world while your characters have a leisurely conversation. That conversation will probably only be four to five dialogue lines long. You then assert that ten minutes passed and the reader will feel like ten minutes really did pass. The exception would be if there is extreme tension, such as characters waiting for a timed bomb to explode in their faces. In that case a lot more than four or five dialogue lines will be noted. It has to do with the attention to detail in a suspenseful situation. Subconsciously readers know that in a scene without life-and-death tension  you aren't reporting every motion or word spoken to them. They expect you to tell only the important parts. But in a scene in which utter disaster and/or death is imminent, you are expected to tell much more. Doing that well is a matter of maintaining tension, however, and that's another post entirely.

That's how you write tolerably good dialogue. But if you want to write sizzling, page-burner dialogue, you'll need more and the ingredients are difficult to put into hard and fast rules. This is more about preparation of the writer than it is about a list of tips.

First, read a ton of the type of fiction you want to write and other types of fiction as well (for balance and perspective). Pay attention to the dialogue. When you really love some dialogue, stop and analyze it. Look at how long the dialogue lines are, what kind of phrases they use, if they use any complete sentences.

Think about the characters you most love in fiction and go through books, looking specifically at their lines of dialogue. Dialogue is much of what makes character. Observe how the character speaks. Is it consistent?  Again, what types of phrases and sentence structures does the character you love use?

Take note of these things either in your brain or on paper and keep reading and noticing. In time, the simple act of paying attention will improve your writing.

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Record conversations and listen to them. Today in the world of smart-phones this has never been easier. Record a family argument. Record a boring meeting. Record your friends hanging out and shooting the shit. Then transcribe some conversations. Write down EXACTLY word for word what was said. Include all the messy stuff, um's... repetitions, confusion. Notice how simple the vocabulary is and how incomplete the sentences are.

Then take those transcriptions and change the statements to make them as short as possible while still containing all the important information. Remove repetitions. Leave sentence fragments and a few important pauses that carry meaning. Clean up the grammar just enough to make it understandable. Do this for as many hours as possible. The awesomeness of your dialogue will be in direct proportion to how many hours of transcription you do. 

Then before you sit down to write a scene of dialogue, sit back and imagine it. Close your eyes if necessary and play it like a movie in your head. At first this will not be easy. The better you know your characters and the emotional undercurrents going on at that moment in your plot, the easier it will be. But keep at it.

The first dialogues with new characters may need revision later, but don't worry about it. Do the best you can with your mind-movie in the beginning. Play it out.

Then write. If you can, let your mind hear the voice of the character as you write the line of dialogue. If your brain doesn't do that, reread the lines as yo go, imagining your character's voice and the expression on their face and on the faces of those listening. Get the emotion of the moment in your own head, even if it is hidden between the lines of a constrained setting or repressed by formal characters. 

Finally, after you have written the dialogue go back over it in editing and read it aloud. Try reading it in a monotone and ensure that you still know who is supposed to be speaking by context, tags and word choice. Also read it with a semblance of the voices and emotion appropriate to the scene. Does it sound realistic? Do people of that type actually talk this way?

If the answer is "No, but I want them to talk this way," you need have a long talk with yourself about what your goals in writing are. If you want to create dialogue that will reach out and grab your readers and hold on with unbreakable tentacles, then you've got to face the fact that readers will read what puts them into the fictive dream. And that dream is broken when characters sound fake. No if's, and's or but's about it. 

If the answer is "I don't know," go back to the beginning of the preparation. The problem may be that you don't have enough experience with people in whatever specific cultural, age or professional category you're writing about. Start specifically reading stories about people of the type your characters are. Analyze how they talk. Let it absorb into you. If possible, record some conversations involving people of the type you are writing about. Transcribe. Keep doing it and great dialogue will come. I promise.

This method works. You may have to modify bits of it to suit the way your own brain works, but in essence this is it. Dialogue is very particular. To be good, it has to follow some pretty strict rules. To be spectacular, it needs to make the reader forget they are reading and feel like they are in the conversation. That takes time, practice and quite a bit of intuition. 

Best wishes and keep writing!

Using the full power of language in description and metaphor: Advanced writing tips

The roar ravaged his ears, the cacophony deafened him, and he swooned into mindless unconsciousness...


Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

That is what happens to readers who read purple prose, if they don't just toss the book and find something better to read. Fortunately for the readers, most of them do toss such books.

And the writers cry in lonely despair, "But it was such a beautiful phrase!"

Writing students often justify embellished prose by claiming that they wish to use the "full power of the English language" or that they refuse to "dumb down" their writing with common and simplistic words. While using the full power of our incredibly versatile language is a worthy goal and I am not in favor of dumbing down writing to the lowest common denominator, neither of these goals really have anything to do with the use of purple prose.

Purple prose is something to be avoided. Period.

And yes, as with many things in writing there is a fine line between purple prose and style. But we can get to that.

What is purple prose?

Purple prose arises when a writer:

  1. Uses unknown words from a thesaurus in order to appear sophisticated or learned or simply to vary word choice. The key issue here is the use of UNKNOWN words. A thesaurus is a good tool and varying word choice is a good idea. But the words you choose must be words you have seen in use and are comfortable using, not one you just looked up today. 
  2. Repeats the same information in multiple descriptor words. This is one reason why writing "mindless unconsciousness" is a bad idea. When a writer is first thinking through ideas, descriptors will often be repeated in verb, noun, adjective and adverb. This is what first drafts are for. Experienced writers nail these repetitions in editing and make sure each word says something new.
  3. Exaggerates or creates logical impossibilities with description. The key to good writing is allowing the reader to experience and usually to visualize the scene. Exaggerations don't help and logical impossibilities stop visualization cold. I know that mostly we're talking about fiction, so you might ask how I know if someone is exaggerating in fiction. Take for example my statement that  "the roar ravaged his ears." While certain extreme body metaphors are permissible--"Her voice was strangled," for instance--we have to be careful with that. Trying to picture a sound that ravages someone's ears throws the reader off. Test such phrases by visualizing them. If it looks like a cartoon and you aren't writing a cartoon, then don't do it. 
  4. Employs more and longer words than necessary to impart information, atmosphere and style. This is the most thorny of the issues, because some styles do call for a bit of "flowery" language. Where would fantasy and historical fiction be without a good turn of phrase. But there are ways to distinguish style from purple prose. They usually go back to the first three problems in this list in some form. Purple prose often over-describes in multiple ways, uses a longer and less-known word when a shorter one would do just as well and/or drives all descriptions to extremes. But there are times when a writer simply wallows in description, dragging the hapless reader along until the reader gives up and goes to find something with more plot (i.e. conflict).
Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

No reader enjoys purple prose. Some writers will argue with this because writers sometimes enjoy their own purple prose. But writers don't really count as their own number one reader. Purple prose isn't legitimate description, which may bore some but inspire others. Purple prose is always boring, annoying and embarrassing. 

That said, almost all writers go through a stage of purple prose and many of us struggle to weed it out in editing even as professionals. Struggling with the demons of purple prose is no sin. Allowing them to cavort drunk and unhindered through the temples of our word gods is.  

Fortunately, the methods for stamping out purple prose and making your descriptions shine twice as bright are relatively simple. Here are the basics:

  • Say what you mean. Get the image or other physical sensation of your scene in your mind and show it.
  • Know the full (surface, secondary and deeper) meanings of words. Study dictionaries, notice how words are used, and use words you know well. 
  • Be specific. Use the most specific noun or verb you can think of. If you write an adjective or an adverb be aware that you do so only because you do not know a noun or a verb that can replace this particular combination of adverb and verb or adjective and noun. If you mean "hurry," don't say "go quickly."
  • Whenever choosing between two words that mean the same thing, use the shorter or more common of the two. This isn't primarily about helping a wide range of readers to easily understand your story, although it may help with that. It isn't the same as dumbing down, which is more about content than anything. This rule really just makes your writing better, smoother and more intelligent. It is an odd but undeniable fact that too many long words make a writer appear unsophisticated and pompous. 
  • When editing, read through your paragraphs and cut out any word that can be cut without changing the meaning of the paragraph. At first you'll have to experiment with taking out a word and rereading over and over again, but eventually your brain will start identifying likely culprits automatically. Start with adverbs, interjections, prepositions, adjectives and exclamations. Always look at "really," "just" and "still." There are many times to use these words. But if you can take them out without changing the connotations of the sentence, do it.
  • Identify words and phrases you personally use too often. Then do a search with your word processor and look at each instance in your story. Try to get rid of any repetitions of the same word or phrase that are unnecessary. Each of us has a certain style and more over we go through phases in which certain words or phrases pop out constantly. This is normal, but it should also be kept in check. Repetition, when used, should be deliberate and purposeful, not accidental.

On top of these common guidelines, there are a few specific tips professed by George Orwell, the father of the genre of dystopia and a writer of extraordinary clarity and descriptive prowess: 

  • Don't use any metaphor or analogy, you've seen more than once. A good general rule, though there are times to break it. If you set that as your goal, you will be much less likely to riddle your story with cliches. 
  • Use active voice whenever you can and use passive voice only when you have no other choice. Beginning writers learn that "passive voice" is bad. And it usually is. But when you need it you really need it. If you need to show the unwillingness of characters to disclose who did something, you will definitely need passive voice. It is said that you identify passive voice by looking for the word "was" but that can be misleading. Don't confuse passive voice with past continuous. You can recognize passive voice by asking "Who did it?" as if you're a detective. If the answer is not at the beginning of the sentence or phrase, the verb is passive. So "she was shocked" is passive. But so is "she is shocked."  And "they were shocked." Who shocked her/them? It's not at the beginning, so it's passive. However, "Her mouth was gaping open" is not passive. It is past continuous and depending on the context and style, it may be correct.
  • Don't exaggerate, especially if it's "only" fiction. This bears repeating. Say what you mean. Give the reader the true image of your story.

Finally two advanced tips from my own hard won experience. 

  • Never use a phrase or word because it "sounds good."
  • And kill your "babies."

These two rules are related. In the professional jargon of writers a "baby" is any word, phrase, plot twist or device that you are unreasoningly attached to during the editing stage. You will notice the pull of these bits. They are the parts that make you smile when you run across them and yet they rarely entrance anyone else. You know for sure that you have a "baby" when you find yourself thinking or saying, "But it just sounds so good!" or "It's only that I really like it that way."

These are red flags. 

Sure, we are allowed to have preferences, but if your only defense against problems with a word, phrase or plot twist is that you like it, then you should almost certainly get rid of it. This is painful but will vastly improve your writing. It is called "killing your babies" because all writers know the pain of it but we have to laugh at ourselves a little in retrospect. If you look back on the "baby" phrases and words you were so attached to a year or so ago you will know what I mean.

This is a safe place for writers and readers alike to discuss these issues. I read all comments and I love to hear from you. What are your experiences with using description and metaphors? Any particularly harrowing stories about "killing your babies?" Comments of your own experience are always welcome. We are concerned with improving our own writing, rather than judging others. 

The #1 secret to writing gripping characters

When I was in high school my teachers, mentors and family members gushed praise over my talent as a budding writer. I'll bet that if you're reading a post about the secrets of the writing craft, yours did too... or perhaps they still do.

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of

I have seen many talented students in writing classes and writer's critique groups over the past twenty years. And there is one terrible affliction that affects them all at some point--the same one that has at times afflicted me. That is the belief that I had made it. 

I don't mean financially. There are only a handful of writers in the whole world who have made it financially through their craft. But I'll admit it. I've suffered through times when I thought I had become such a good writer that I had little left to learn of the craft. I'm glad to say that as I've gotten older, that particular affliction has recurred less and less often. 

Before you get offended and go off certain that you are the exception, sure that you have learned all the basics of writing and only need to polish the brightest jewels in your prose, please stop and consider. I was seventeen when an article I wrote in a small-town newspaper won a statewide competition. I didn't even have to submit the article. It was noticed all on its own. My first writing professor in college initially scoffed at the idea that I would double his required word count and make it all high quality as well. He wasn't scoffing after two semesters in which I delivered before every deadline. And yet when I look back on my writing from that time, I can only cringe and laugh and tell myself it is good that I've improved.

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof

I had the spark and many others do too. I am not saying you're a hack, just that many new writers who are good still don't have the best skills of the craft. And after twenty years of writing non-stop, I stand in awe at all I have left to learn. 

So, don't despair. Keep your current writing in good clean folders and notebooks. Make sure you keep it safe. You will need it in ten or twenty years, when you will look back and be astounded by how far you have come. It will make you cringe but also give you courage. 

But I promised you the big secret of writing gripping characters, not all this blather about how much you have yet to learn. Don't worry. That wasn't click bait. 

It's only that my writing students have been teaching me that new and talented writers who can dance with language, produce dazzling sentences, craft sturdy and beautiful paragraphs and plot a snappy narrative believe they have it made and often refuse to consider technical terms. They assume they know the "rules" already, even when they don't. 

My writing students recently swore to me that they know what P.O.V. means. Their manuscripts tell another tale. 

So, I decided to put this out there. The single most important key to writing gripping characters is the correct and deft use of Point of View. As you probably already know, Point of View (abbreviated to P.O.V.) refers to the perspective your story is narrated from. It goes beyond the difference between first person versus third person. Or the mandatory caveat that stories can technically be written in second person, but that just because a thing can be done doesn't mean you should. 

There is also the difference between limited P.O.V. and omniscient, i.e. whether the reader feels like a bug sitting in your character's brain, listening to his/her thoughts and watching the action through his/her eyes, or feels like the God of monotheistic religions, sitting on a cloud and viewing the whole thing from above. As the terms hint, the former is called "limited" P.O.V. and the latter is called "omniscient."

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

If the terminology of "first person" and "third person" gives you trouble, here is an excellent beginner's guide to P.O.V. But what I am discussing in this post goes a bit beyond the bare bones. 

Many writers think of P.O.V. as a simply a technical decision you make at the beginning of a writing project, like the verb tense you will use. You decide whether or not you will tell the story as "I" and in the present moment, so that the reader feels like they are the main character and the events are happening right now OR if you will tell a story about another person--a guilt-ridden old man, a reckless young woman or some other "he" or " she"--and in some long distant fantasy age or possibly a yet unforeseen future.  And ,many writers believe that once the decision has been made that's the end of it and that gripping characters can be had with any tense or P.O.V.

Many will argue that P.O.V. is not character development and thus it has nothing to do with how gripping your characters are.

But they'll be wrong.

Deciding which P.O.V. to use is no small thing. It's a momentous choice and not one you can change easily. I can tell you from bitter experience, that if you change your mind two chapters into a story and decide to change your P.O.V. you should definitely not attempt to edit your chapters to reflect the change. You should start from scratch and write the chapters again. P.O.V. affects everything, every turn of phrase and many things too subtle for anyone to consciously edit well. 

The reason for this gets at the root of why P.O.V. is the key to gripping characters. 

Here is a hard truth. Despite all this talk of different P.O.V.s in fiction, there is in reality only one P.O.V.:

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

The reader.

I'm serious. At the very least, it's the only one that matters. When you read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you are presented with a myriad of different P.O.V.s but they all meet at one point. They all meet in the reader. The reader feels and understands the various characters, knows their fears and anger, grits their teeth in frustration and clings to fleeing hope. 

How does Martin manage to get readers so hotly engaged in the characters and the story and keep them that way for years... a lot of years?

It is primarily because when Martin wrote, he clearly took the position of each character in turn, put himself in those shoes and smelled what that character smelled, felt what he or she felt, burned with the anger of that character and knew the history of that character--even the history not specifically stated in the pages. 

New writers make P.O.V. mistakes a lot, chief among them being what we call "head-hopping." You can technically avoid head-hopping by learning what it is and how to avoid it from a technical standpoint. But there is an easier short-cut to avoiding it and one that will inevitably make your characters grip the reader more.

Try this exercise. After you finish reading this, take your hands off your keyboard, close your eyes and form the image of the character who you want to tell your next story. I don't care if this is the kennel boy, the vapid alien, the plucky rookie cop or an omniscient God.  Make up an image. Then make up an image of a video camera in your hand. Put your eyes into the camera and then your ears and lastly your heart. Make sure they are firmly inside this camera. And then hand the camera to your character.

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Good. Now, go write. But write ONLY what that camera in the hands of your character sees and hears and feels. 

If you are writing the next big thing after A Song of Ice and Fire and you need to jump from character to character, take a moment each time you want to make the switch to a different character. Envision the next character and clearly see within your mind the character who had the camera last handing the camera to the next character. Then continue writing. 

Don't just switch without taking the time for this exercise or some similar moment of concentration and visualization. You must take this time and engage in a conscious process of switching. That is the key to writing gripping characters.

Not just deciding on a P.O.V. and not just choosing the "correct" one for your type of story, which is a debatable issue. But rather the clear understanding of what your P.O.V. can see and hear and feel.

Your book may not be a movie and you may not even want it to have a film-like feel. That doesn't matter. Your narrator still can only experience what he/she/it experiences. No more. 

You can have the camera held by one person and thus see all closely from that person's perspective, including understanding their inner world and feelings of that one character and misunderstanding and guessing at the feelings and thoughts of other characters. Or you can give the camera to God and point it at the characters, seeing all of them more objectively, yet not delving deep into their inner thoughts and emotions. But you cannot have it both ways without a clear break.

Keep in mind that characters cannot actually see themselves, unless they are looking in a mirror. You cannot start a sentence describing a character's facial features and ending with his inner, unspoken fears. Well, physically you can of course, if you really want to. There are plenty of examples of a character looking into a mirror and noting their appearance and then continuing with their inner thoughts. But this is an overused technique and should only be employed if it comes up as a completely obvious choice for your character. If you create this kind of sentence without the mirror and thus imply looking from the outside and then the inside of the person at the same time, you will destroy your reader's experience and turn readers away from your character. Such a character does not hold interest or empathy. 

When I explained this in classes, one student responded by pulling out examples from classical literature in which this rule has been broken by famous authors of the distant past. The question was plain. Do I dare to challenge the titans of fiction?

Well, in some ways I do. We don't look down on the great medieval painters because they painted stiff, portraits of children with faces that appear middle aged. But neither do we emulate them. Crafts progress and P.O.V. is one way in which the craft of fiction writing has developed over the past several hundred years. 

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of

On the other hand, many early works are quite good and have a magic of their own. I didn't claim that P.O.V. is the answer to everything, just the key to gripping characters. Engaging character development was not always the highest goal of the fiction writer. In the ages before Facebook and on-demand TV, fiction could take at least a little longer to get around to the point and characters could be a bit less gripping in favor of other virtues of the prose.

Today, however, they can't.

Either you grip your reader or you die. All writers must die as George Martin would probably say. The question is whether or not you will die in obscurity without your stories being read.

If you want to grab readers, make your characters grip. And in order to make them grip, be absolutely certain of your P.O.V. and stick to it. Never forget who is is holding your camera at any given moment and be firmly inside their experience as you write. 

There is more to writing gripping characters of course, things like character description, motive, character arc, background and believable interactions--all things I will discuss in other posts. But getting the P.O.V. right and sticking to it is more important than any of that. Without a solid and steady P.O.V. there is no character to develop. 

I love connecting to fellow writers. Let's share our experiences. Drop me a line below and tell me and other readers about your experiences with writing P.O.V. Have you made any dramatic mistakes with P.O.V.?  What is your favorite P.O.V.? Are these terms new to you or have you been wrestling the beast for some time?

Be well and keep writing.

Four magic spells you can cast on your novel with a fictional language - Advanced Writing Tips

In my last post, you learned about the building materials needed to make a fictional language. Nuts and bolts, verbs and nouns, bricks and cement—that sort of thing. You could stop there if all you need is a few sentences of dialogue to add an exotic feel to a character who is supposed to be from another culture in your story. But the real magic and usually the whole reason for creating a fictional language for your story goes a lot deeper--to a level that makes your settings and characters live and breathe.

Creative Commons image by Nick Kenrick

Creative Commons image by Nick Kenrick

Language is part of culture and culture is part of your fictional setting--the environment that shapes your characters. As such, when writers invest time and effort in creating fictional languages the purpose isn’t just a generalized exotic atmosphere, but rather a technique for shaping characters and social setting in specific ways. With languages, we can play with psychology and symbols and get deeper ideas across without having to spell them out and spoil the plot.

Creating a fictional language is a wonderful way to manipulate the culture and setting of the world in your novel because you become like a true magician. By uttering a few words, you create massive changes. As such, you must be careful what you wish for. Subtle things in a language can have far reaching effects. 

Here are a few of the magic spells you can cast—or avoid casting—depending on your needs.

1. Play with gender and other social divisions

I mentioned gender briefly in the post about grammar. Many languages show the gender of a person being spoken about. Others even make clear the gender of the speaker, meaning that little boys and little girls actually have to learn to speak in two different ways. But it isn't a given. Some languages may not point out gender so much.

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt 

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt 

Take a moment to think about the possible consequences for the culture. As a general rule, linguists have found that languages that emphasize gender are found in cultures where gender roles are very clear cut and inflexible. English makes it very hard to avoid spelling out whether or not a person being spoken or written about is a man or a woman. This has caused a lot of frustration for English-speaking feminists, who wish to break down stereotypes and avoid the second reference to a theoretical doctor or repairman as “he” or a nurse as “she.” In recent decades, many people have tried to avoid this with cumbersome constructions, like “he/she” or “they” used in the singular, or with obscure, made-up pronouns like “ze” and “xe.”

That may seem like a big problem to English-speaking feminists, but take a language like Spanish, where even the adjectives show what gender the person you’re talking about is, and all nouns are associated with a gender. Talk about stereotypes and assumptions!

Then there are the Slavic languages—like the Czech my children are growing up to speak—where it isn’t just pronouns, nouns and adjectives but even verbs! You cannot say anything about what you have done in the past without giving away your gender. Avoiding the gender of a person is almost impossible even in the shortest sentences. As a result, gender-neutral names are anathema and officially illegal. They would cause no end of confusion. Small boys in this culture—my son included—often encounter a strange problem because as toddlers they are exposed primarily to women’s speech at home and thus inadvertently speak like females for a few years, not having heard enough male speech to form it correctly. Men often come down heavy on this quirk of little boys and thus reinforce the patriarchal idea that being female is shameful. Gender roles are often starkly defined.

What does this mean for your fictional language? Well first of all, if your story takes place in a culture with heavily defined gender roles, make sure the language has lots of gender definition in it. You can point out these issues, even if your dialogue is actually written in English. How characters think about language and the mistakes people notice others make in language are both keys to cultural norms and can say volumes about the social environment without you having to explain. 

On the other hand, if you want to claim that your fictional culture is not hung up on gender and is thus more equitable, you will need to do away with this sort of gender differentiation in the language. Preferably don’t even use separate pronouns for “he” and “she.”

My own example comes from The Kyrennei Series. It isn’t until Book 5, that the Kyren language is more deeply explained, but there are earlier hints about gender neutrality. As in many fictional languages where the author wants to emphasize gender equity, there is no specific pronoun for “he” and “she” in Kyren. 

However, almost all societies do have divisions. (If yours doesn’t, where will your necessary, fictional conflict come from?) It is an excellent idea to emphasize the most crucial social divisions in your grammar. What if instead of “he” and “she,” you had separate pronouns for peasants and nobility?  Your social structure would be locked in place even more rigidly than medieval Europe. Peasants and nobility might not even be considered to be of the same species! 

In my Kyren language, the division that is not apparent between genders exists between the old and the young and between those who are Kyren and those who are not. There are four different pronouns for “he/she” (and another four for “they” for that matter. In Kyren, you get no breaks for speaking in the plural.) 

Creative Commons image by  Rusty Clark

Creative Commons image by  Rusty Clark

There is a pronoun for a young Kyren person and one for an old Kyren person. There are also pronouns for a young non-Kyren outsider and for an old, non-Kyren outsider. Just to make it more fun, all nouns come in these categories too, just as nouns have gender in Spanish. The verb endings  reflect the same differences. 

This tells the reader—without anyone ever saying it outright—that the ancient Kyren culture was obsessed with age, respectability and Kyren versus outsider status. There are important reasons for this as any Kyrennei Series reader will know. That’s why it's magic. This kind of game with gender and social divisions can paint vivid pictures and spark massive conflict in your setting. 

But go cautiously at first! As with all powerful magic, there are costs and pitfalls. Keeping the words of the spell (and the grammatical endings) straight can be an immense task, if you complicate your language in this way. At the very least, you should play with it a bit before inserting it into a book. If you want to tackle encoding social divisions in your language, make sure that everything I wrote in the last post about the building materials of language is very familiar first.

2. Fun with time

Most languages change their verbs a bit to show when something is happening in the present (you’re reading), in the past (I wrote), or in the future (you’ll write). There are some languages that don’t entirely separate these ideas of time, however. Or they may do so in ways English speakers would find unsatisfactory. 

One could say that English is a bit obsessed with pinpointing time exactly. We have at least twelve basic verb tenses, all of which we consider to impart crucial bits of information. Consider the differences between the sentences “I will have written it by tomorrow” and “Tomorrow I will have been writing it for a week.” Most languages would have to go into quite a lot of explanations to make sure you got all the nuance of difference between those sentences.

Why does English have so many verb tenses? Possibly our ancestors worshiped clocks. Hard to say but if you want to make a society obsessed with time, you had better give them at least a moderate number of verb tenses. 

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Conversely, if you want to protray a society where people live in the moment and emphasize their phlegmatic relationship with time, you don’t have to give them verb tenses at all. If they really need to specify that they fought a battle yesterday, they can just say, “We fight yesterday.” The point gets across. And there are real languages like this.

What if you’re writing science fiction and you have a society that is very familiar with time travel? They would almost have to do without verb tenses. Thus it would not be so important whether the battle already happened or will happen in the future. That’s relative and might even be changeable. 

As with gender and other divisions, be careful with over complication. But also have fun. Time is a lovely play thing.

3. Making your characters prejudiced

A prejudice is simply an assumption or a pre-conceived notion. It does not mean your character is bad. Everyone, even good people, make assumptions all the time. And many assumptions and prejudices stem from the very language we speak. 

Terminology, such as the word “disabled,” creates assumptions. When a person (or a machine) is called “dis-abled” our English-speaking brain assumes that this means it is less able in general, even though what we actually mean is that one certain function works differently. In today’s society some “disabilities” such as deafness, may not really “dis-able” the individual in any significant way. Deaf people simply speak a different language. We all have differing abilities and lack of ability in various areas. Whether you are called “disabled” or not, you know if you are a fast runner or if you have perfect pitch. Often certain abilities will be mutually exclusive. You can’t have both the strength of a body-builder and the speed and agility of a prime soccer offense player. The two don’t work well together, but neither is considered “dis-ability.”  

In fiction, you could construct a language where terms for bodily abilities were different and thus created different, possibly more open-minded assumptions. Of if you want to heighten conflict in your story (always good for your plot), you could construct terminology that actually increases assumptions. Consider the interesting real-world fact that the word for German in many Slavic languages literally means “those who can’t talk.” It is very similar to the modern word for “mute.” One can see what the ancient Slavic tribes thought of the ancient Germanic tribes. But the assumptions carry over subliminally even until today. You can do this in fictional languages as well.

In the Kyrennei Series, the term “Kyrennei”  means “people of the night spirits”  or something of the like. Their term for people who aren’t Kyrennei is “Nyttanah”  which means “people of the day spirits.”  There are all kinds assumptions and prejudices that pop up because of these two terms. I don’t mean by this that my characters are bad and evil racists. I simply mean that they are reawakening an ancient culture which makes certain assumptions and this does play into some of the conflict. 

Another way to show assumptions and prejudices is in the use of adjectives and nouns. As I said earlier, putting a certain gender to each noun will automatically cause people to leap to certain associations with that noun. School is feminine in many cultures and castle or fortress is usually masculine. If it were the other way around that would say something interesting about the culture. But there are many other ways to do this beyond gender.

The best way to show this trick is by example. In my fictional language, Kyren you cannot say an adjective such as “big”  or “small”  without giving away what you think about the person or thing being described. Adjectives have endings that show whether the speaker thinks the attribute (such as largeness or smallness) is temporary or permanent. Thus if you say a child is small, you will use a temporary ending. But if you say an adult is temporarily large the connotation is quite different. In fact, in the world of the Kyrennei an adult can be only temporarily large--generally those who carry Kyrennei genes but are born into Nyttanah bodies. If they undergo a genetic change, they will become smaller, more the size of a young tween.  

And the ending also changes depending on whether or not the speaker thinks that all similar people or objects generally share that attribute--in this case temporary largeness and whether the person or object is unique in being being temporarily large. So, if you speak about a child as small, you will either say the child is temporarily small like all children or temporarily uniquely small to say the child is small for the age. There is no middle ground. You have to choose in order to use the adjective “small” in Kyren. 

This is a very advanced linguistic trick but it can define your society in interesting ways. If you force the language to reveal the assumptions of the speaker, whether those assumptions are about groups of people or objects (as in Kyren) or about whether or not actions are completed or not (as in many real-world languages) you will force your people to be cautious in their wording and create cultures where offense is given easily. 

4. Showing the love

Good fiction must have conflict and that is why most of my language-tweaking suggestions involve giving your fictional culture problems and tensions. But there is another way to create conflict—love. 

That’s right. Make your people love something and then threaten it, abuse it or deny it to them and you’ll have more conflict than you know what to do with. But the deeper the love runs, the greater the passion will be. 

Creative Commons image by Gisela Giardino

Creative Commons image by Gisela Giardino

And there is nothing deeper in psychology than the way we use language. 
So, if you want to make your fictional characters love something with a deep, irrational passion or show a cultural reverence for age, wisdom, freedom, youth, piety, virginity, sex or whatever, encode it in the language.

First of all, you can make words connected to those things you want your fictional people to revere romantic and beautiful in sound. This can be particularly effective when the thing you’re adopting as a social obsession is actually something modern society thinks of as negative, such as death or sex. 

This is a good place to make up idioms. You can make positive associations between words that today’s real-world culture might not see as positive.

Here's a real world example from the Czech language. When a person wants to say that a situation, idea or thing is NOT good in Czech, they might say, “It’s not greasy and salty.” While not being greasy and salty (especially applied to things that aren’t food) is generally considered a good thing in modern culture, that phrase dates back to a time when the poor peasants in this landlocked country desired salt and fat (usually a priceless bit of lard) above all else. And the phrase is still widely used today. Language shows what we desire and love.

Obviously idioms can just as easily show what a culture despises or does not value. In English, when we say, “The CEO made a blind decision,” we aren’t just saying a bad thing about the CEO, we’re also expressing a cultural assumption about blindness as unwise or stupid. If you are aware of these markers and use them in the dialogue of your characters as fictional idioms, you can create complex loves and hates in a reader without ever having to resort to the more obvious tricks of the trade.

These are a few of the advanced, professional-grade power tools used by writers when constructing a fictional language. Pulling it all together can take time, especially if you make the language overly complex. But you may not need as much of it as you think. Insert a few specific idioms into your English-language dialogue and you’ve essentially hinted at a fictional language. If used consistently and with care the bits and pieces can make the cultural setting of your story shine.

Creating a fictional language - Step 1: Mastering the building materials

J.R.R. Tolkien has long been seen as the master of fictional languages—a genius in fact—and many writers I talk to say they would never attempt to repeat his feats because that would require being an academic linguist.

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

My bachelor’s degree is in linguistics—Slavic linguistics to be exact. And I had the great honor to study with professor George Smalley at Lawrence University in Wisconsin in the 1990s. However, I’m not an expert or a true academic linguist. And still I can make a very credible fictional language, and I can tell you that it isn’t as difficult as it looks. There are amateur pitfalls to avoid, certainly, but the background necessary to start a fictional language can be laid out in a few steps.

The first and most indispensable step for making a fictional language without looking silly is mastering the parts of speech or the building materials that you'll use to construct your language. The essential issue is that you don’t want to take a sentence like, “I’m going to cut off your stinking head, you barbarian!” and translate it word for word simply by making up a word for each word in the sentence. That would result in something like “Gwa’l tori ik akshi ma lu yelim krat, dre marano!” 

Even if you wrote each one of these words down in your notebook and remembered them well enough to use “dre” for “you” the next time you wrote a sentence, it still would be silly. For one thing “dre” doesn’t appear to be related to “lu.” And it should be, because “you” and “your” always have some relation in any language. Beyond that “am going to cut” is one verb and in most languages it would be one word, maybe two. English is a bit strange that it makes so many little words out of one verb. 

If you tried to make a fictional language by the method of translating every word from English, it would not only be silly, it would be insanely difficult to maintain for more than a sentence or two because of the finicky little words you'd have to keep track of, like "am" and "to." 

Creative commons image by Avenue G of

Creative commons image by Avenue G of

The key to making a believable fictional language and not going nuts while you do it is having a good grasp of your building materials and making your own rules for them. For most people, the most difficult part of creating a fictional language is reviewing what you learned in middle school English class about verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles and the like.

Now stop that! Your eyes are glazing over. I can smell it. I’m not going to make you diagram sentences. But essentially if you can keep these few terms straight, you can make a fictional language that no one can sneer at.


A verb is an action. (Sit, run, be, am, am going, are sitting, was running, has been reading—be careful of the fact that many verbs in English are made up of more than one word but that’s really the only tricky part.)

There are no known languages that don’t have verbs of some sort. The main trick to this part is making sure you’re using the whole verb. In the sentence “I will have been writing for ten years next week” the verb is “will have been writing.” That’s four words in English (not even counting the pronoun), but in many languages it would be one word. It is much easier to simplify your verbs in this way. You don’t need a word for each of the four words “will have been writing.” .

Instead what you need is a rule. Take the most important word from that verb—”writing”—and make up a word that means “to write” in your fictional language. Let’s say you make up “Falimanesa.” Great! That sounds suitably grand for our noble profession. 

But stop a minute and look more closely at your fictional word. You must decide what about it makes it basic verb in your language. Is it that it starts with F?  Or is it that it ends in “esa” or just A? Usually it’s the beginning or the ending. Just as English has “to” to show that we’re talking about the basic verb “to write” other languages have their own ways to mark a verb.

Let’s say you decide to go the easy route, like I would. Looking at your first fictional verb, you decide that all basic verbs will end in A. (Vowels are a good choice for the standard ending.) So "Falimanesa" is "to write" and "Bida" is "to eat," and so on. Just build a word list as you go. If you only need a few sentences of a fictional language in your book, it won't even be that many words but it will look like it's a real language.

Then it’s time to decide how complicated your grammar will be. In the beginning, it is best to start out simple, which means you probably won’t have much beyond a past tense, a present tense and a future tense. 

Past tense is things like “I wrote,” “I was writing,” and “I had written.” In your fictional language you do not need separate words for these different English phrases. They’re all just past. They happened. It’s over. 

Present tense is things like “I write,” “I’m writing,” and “I have been writing.” Don’t complicate it. Make them all the same. The same goes for future tense. There is no need to have a different form for “I’ll write,” and “I’m going to be writing.” They are in the future. If you want to make your life difficult and have a degree in linguists somewhat more advanced than mine, feel free to ignore this.

Now you need to have a simple rule for your three verb tenses. Let’s say you make all writing in the past be “Falimanesan,” all writing in the present be “Falimanesat,” and all writing in the future be “Falimanesas.”

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Simple. Elegant. Easy to remember. Past verbs end in AN, present in AT and future in AS. Yes, most languages have exceptions but don’t tinker with that until you’ve mastered this. You can also theoretically make your verb change depending on what the subject is. It can be as simple as the difference between English “I run” and “he runs.” But it isn’t necessary and at first it is better to keep it simple. It will look complicated enough both to you and to your reader by the time you’re done.

In the fictional example of my sentence about cutting off heads. We need a verb for “to cut.” Let’s make it dramatic like, “aksha.” To show that the cutting is going to happen in the future (however near) we’ll use “akshas.” 


A noun is a “person, place or thing.” (Yup, you probably remember that from grade school. "Dog", "house," "houseboat," "you," "Mr. Blip the alien" and "I" are all nouns.) 

Theoretically, nouns can be simpler than verbs. You don’t really NEED to have various forms of nouns. But you should be aware that most languages do have some rules. In many languages, nouns have a gender—masculine, feminine or neutral. Some languages have even more than that, although they aren’t called gender anymore but “noun classes.” The basic thing is that if you have a gender, it’s best to find a way to show which gender your noun is by its spelling just as we did with basic verbs ending in A. You could say all masculine nouns will end in O and all feminine nouns will end in hard-sounding consonants like T, K, G, B and D. It all depends on the gender roles in your fictional society. 

It’s also good to know that many languages change their nouns depending on where they are in a sentence or context. This is called “case.” You don’t have to do it and I recommend not dealing with it if you don’t yet know what a noun case is. But you will need to have a way to show the difference between singular and plural nouns (dog vs. dogs). You will also need to add something to your nouns, when you run into prepositions like “to” and “for” and determiners like “my” and “that.” But those can be saved for another section. Just be aware that you’ll probably need to add something to your nouns, either as separate words or added to the beginning or end of the noun.

In my example, we have four nouns “barbarian,” “head,” “you,” and “I.” Let’s say “head” is feminine. So we’ll say, “krat” and the barbarian is a male, so we’ll say, “marano.” 

Now one of the more important parts of a fictional language is what you do with the pronouns. “I” and “you” are not your average nouns. They are pronouns. They’ll get used A LOT. And they don’t have to follow the same rules as other nouns. This is one place to make exceptions. 

If you have made very simple verbs that don’t change depending on who is doing the action, then you really need good pronouns. Make pronouns short and easy to differentiate. We’ll say “I” is “Gwa” and “you” is “Dre.” At this point, it would be a good idea to make up your equivalents of “we,” “he,” “she,” and “they” as well and to decide if you’re going to have separate pronouns for different genders. Just as we have “he” and “she,” you could easily have different genders in the words “I” and “you.” But you don’t have to. In fact, you don't have to have separate words for "he" and "she." Feminists will be thrilled. But it's worth thinking about what gender is like in the society where your language is spoken.

Adjectives and Adverbs

An adjective describes a noun. (Green, huge, multi-faceted and monstrous—all prime suspects.)
An adverb describes the action of a verb (slowly, wildly, on Tuesday, for weeks on end—are all adverbs and like verbs in English many of them are actually phrases of several words.)

Some languages are less likely to use adjectives and adverbs and more likely to have a special verb meaning “to eat slowly.” You can play with such things in a fictional language, but you can also just copy English when it comes to this sort of thing. Tolkien did, so you’d be in good company. 

It will be helpful to you and it's general good linguistic policy if there is some way to tell what is an adjective and what is an adverb by the spelling, just as we did with nouns and verbs. English has the ending “ly” to differentiate a lot of adjectives. Let’s say adjectives are going to end in IR and adverbs are going to end in ESE. In this fictional language. To make it simple they all will. Not just some as with the LY ending in English.

The one place to be careful is in adverb phrases like “on Tuesday” and “for weeks on end.” These usually tell how long something is going on and it is better to use one word for these phrases or at least come up with a consistent way of making them. 

The only descriptive word in my example is “stinking.” Let’s say “yelimir” but make a little note in your notebook that “to stink” had better bear some resemblance to this word and end in A. Probably should end up as “yelima” for the verb “to stink.”


Prepositions are words that prep another word or phrase. 

“In,” “at,” “under,” “around,” “before,” and “of” are all prepositions. Some languages don’t make them separate words but rather add a prefix or a suffix to the word that the preposition preps, as if they wrote “the dog is the kitchen-in” instead of “the dog is in the kitchen.”

You can simply translate prepositions straight across. Make up a word for “in” and always use it for “in” when you translate a sentence. Many languages work almost like that. At least they have a word that is a bit like “in” even though it is often used in a few situations where English would use “at” or isn’t used in some instances where English does use it. But in general you don’t have to play with your prepositions. But you can and it is one of the easier ways to make your language more authentic and less like a direct code of English. 

In the fictional language Kyren in The Kyrennei Series I made many prepositions into prefixes, so that instead of a separate word, the preposition is attached to the word it preps. Thus, “of the Kyrennei” becomes “i-Kyrennei.” 

Many real languages use a grammatical function called “case” which essentially acts like a preposition but instead of a separate word, it adds an ending to or otherwise changes the words being prepared. This is very common and English is a bit of an exception because we use almost no cases. (We do use cases when it comes to pronouns. That’s why you say, “You see ME,” instead of “You see I.”)

Some languages use a preposition word in some situations as well as the case ending, but in other situations it is only the ending. For instance, in Czech the word for train is “vlak.” But “in the train” is “ve vlaku.” There is both a preparing word for “in” and an ending. 

If you have not learned a language which uses cases, it is better to avoid using such complexities. But you can easily make a special ending denoting each English preposition word. Your language would then appear at first glance to have cases and no one could really argue with you.

In Czech, going "by train" is simply "vlakem." There is no preposition word for "by" only the case ending. You could think of the ending EM as the equivalent of "by." It isn't quite that simple in Czech, but in a fictional language it would look very authentic.

Let’s use that trick in our example. We need the preposition “off” for the example sentence. But we’re going to add it as an ending to the adjective and the noun, instead of a separate word. So, I say “off” will give a word the ending ARA. So, “Gwa akshas … yelimirara kratara, dre marano!” We still need a word for “your” but we’re getting a lot closer and the sentence is starting to look like a real language. 

Articles and determiners

The English article is “the,” “a” and “an.” The easiest way to deal with these words in a fictional language is just to drop them all together. Most languages do and it doesn’t hurt a thing. Although writing without article in English makes you sound like barbarian, it really doesn’t sound too bad in other languages.

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

However, other words like “my,” “your,” “some,” “any,” “this” and “that” are very necessary. There are more complex ways to handle them, but for the purpose of making your first fictional language relatively easy, it is best to simply designate a word for each of these. 

Just keep in mind that they should be short and they can’t be entirely arbitrary. Possessives like “my” and “your” should have a clear connection to the pronoun they are related to. So, if “dre” is “you,” then we’ll say “drem” is “your.” 
Words like “this” and “that” are also good to keep slightly related. But that’s a detail.

Other words

Other words such as the connectors “and” and “but” or interesting constructions like “would,” can be handled by simply making up a word to correspond to the English equivalent. That’s the simplest way, even though you can get complicated with many of these concepts as well. 

It’s only advisable to think before you leap. Some words like “since” can be a preposition and a connecting word. And a word like “could” actually is a combination of “can” and “would.” Be aware that some words ending in ING in English look like verbs but they are really nouns. A "human being" is one example. Make your words relate in logical ways as much as possible. You’ll save yourself a headache when trying to use your fictional language and it will look much more believable.

Now go play with your words or else. Gwa akshas drem yelimirara kratara, dre marano!

Code of Magic: The keys to writing gripping fantasy

When I was a teenager and a serious fantasy fan girl (I read The Silmarillion twice and wrote epic poems to chronicle its stories), the first book on writing I read was about how to write about magic.  It would be twenty years before I became a fantasy author, but as a reader I loved learning about the mysteries behind the creation of my favorite fantasy worlds. This post (originally published as a guest column for Marie Lavender's blog) comes from what I learned both as a writer and as an avid and studious reader of the genre over four decades.

The vast genre of fantasy is akin to a wildly diverse landscape—encompassing vast plains of epic proportion, shear crags of nail-biting tension, dark places where many fear to tread, deep forests of ancient myth and cities of every description where corruption and courage vie for dominance. Still, as enormous as this genre is there is one thing that indicates whether or not a story belongs in the fantasy universe. Fantasy stories contain some form of “magic.”

Creative Commons image by  Nicolas Raymond

Creative Commons image by  Nicolas Raymond

It may be no more than subtle dreams invading reality in magical realism or it can be a full-blown flying printing press that shoots bolts of lightning in a steampunk/western mashup, but there’s got to be magic.

Magic in this context can be defined as something that cannot be explained purely by science. The line between fantasy and science fiction is under some debate because there is always the question of whether something that can’t be explained by science today might someday be within scientific grasp. But fantasy should generally fall on the side of strange and wonderful things that science isn’t expected to explain.

For writers, the fantasy genre maintains all the challenges that other types of literature entail, plus a few. There is often a lot of work to do to develop settings and to make characters that are very different from us relatable. But the thing that makes fantasy either fly or flop is the design and execution of whatever magic is in the story.

While it may be fun to throw pure imagination at the page and let all things go wild, as in Alice in Wonderland, writers do well to be wary of that path. It can lead to obscure literary praise (if done extraordinarily well), but it leads into the surrealist subgenre of fantasy, where few paying readers venture. And thus it doesn’t generate bestsellers.

If you want to not only write fantasy but have other people read what you write, careful thought on magical systems is mandatory. David Eddings reportedly spent six years developing his magical system before starting the Belgariad. Being less bold than the grand masters of fantasy, I took twenty years to work out my first magical system and it is satisfyingly troll proof. A magical system doesn’t necessarily have to take that long, but some serious thought goes into the good ones.

There are rules you can follow to make the process easier. Good magical systems can be had by rehashing the same themes explored since the dawn of true civilization (ahem… that being in 1911 when J.R.R. Tolkien started writing for school magazines). However, the key to creating a great magical system is in the conflict that arises from a unique premise.

With that in mind, here is my code of magical development:

The author god must know the truth

 Problems can arise when a writer is exploring a magical system while writing. It’s fine as far as it goes, but this exploratory approach requires major editing and you shouldn’t start publishing until you know your magical system to its very core.

Creative Commons image by Shock2006 of

Creative Commons image by Shock2006 of

I’m going to use some examples from my contemporary fantasy series here, not because I think mine is the best or because I want to force it down your throat, but because one can only really write about the behind the scenes methods of an author from first-hand experience. I spent many years, testing out different scenarios in my imagination before writing and this resulted in a logically sound and yet deceptively simple scheme.

In the long forgotten past, a very negative magical work was created and it took over the wills of its human creators. The negative magic itself became a living entity—the Addin. The Addin desires absolute power over humanity and it gains it through usurping the wills of individuals and using them as pawns. Many of the political, economic and social leaders of today’s world are in fact controlled by the Addin. No human being can resist Addin domination for long, if they are specifically targeted. Most people don’t even know it exists and think that simple greed and corruption account for any abuses of power and the destructive tendencies of their leaders.

The world I created for The Kyrennei Series is eerily similar to the real world and that has been the key to its impact on readers who find the Addin frighteningly plausible. That’s part of the magical system of this world and while the main characters don’t entirely understand it even within the first few books of the series, my understanding of it as the author keeps the series consistent and gives the story a connection to authentic emotions.

Know the Source

Magic has to come from somewhere or something in your world. Your characters may not know where it comes from, but you should. Is it from the gods or pulled from the life force around the magic user or from the energy of the universe or from something else?

I never spell this out in The Kyrennei Series but essentially magic comes from primal life force or energy. It operates on another plane of reality that can affect physical reality in certain ways. Emotion is also energy. The intensity that goes into the use of magic matters and the Addin, of course, operates primarily through the usurpation of the emotions of others.

This was important for me to understand as an author even though the characters didn’t get into the theoretical basis of magic in their world. It has implications for the way magic works. The Addin steals the power of human beings by usurping their emotions. But there are people that the Addin cannot take over. They are the Kyrennei, a non-human race that lived on earth long ago, but the Addin was able to annihilate them fourteen centuries ago because they were smaller and physically weaker than humans. Still, before they died the last Kyrennei mages set a magical process in motion that hid the genome of the Kyrennei within the DNA of certain humans. When the Kyrennei thus return from extinction after centuries of absence it is their power to resist the Addin and their other abilities with energy and emotion that matter. And the details of this premise fit together nicely because they are rooted in the source of magic itself.

Know the limits

Just as magic should have a source, it must have limits. If it didn’t have limits, there would be nothing stopping anyone with magic from getting everything they want and ruling the world. And that would make for a boring story. Limits equal conflict and conflict is good for fiction.

The limit may be as simple as a Cold War between magic users, such as “I can sense your magic, so if you try to kill me in order to control the world without competition, I’ll vaporize you just as you vaporize me.” There’s conflict there, even if the magic is otherwise limitless, but that would make for a very inflexible conflict.

Creative Commons image by Shadowgate

Creative Commons image by Shadowgate

Here again your characters don’t necessarily know the limits of magic in their world. Or you might have some fully informed magical scholars. But the “author god” should know the limits. What can magic do? What can it not do? Is it limited by space and time? Is it difficult to learn or limited to only some talented magic users? Is it theoretically possible for magic users to read minds, live forever, change anything into anything, bring back the dead, put out the sun or drive the planet like a space ship? If they can’t do these things and much more, your magic isn’t limitless. And you need to know where those limits are.

Often the outer limits of magic will not be firm, however. Some types of magic may be stronger than others, some magic users may be able to do more and certain devices, substances or rituals may be able to push the limits of magic. Again, the “author god” must know what is possible and what determines the abilities of magic users.

As an example, in The Kyrennei Series, the question of why the magic users don’t rule the world is answered. One group of them does rule. They exterminated the other group of magic users partly because that group resisted their control of the wills of normal humans. Even so, the ruling group does not use their power without limit. When they usurp a person’s will they make that person one of the elite group of magic users as well and thus they must share power with that person from that time forward (even though they will be a loyal follower of their patron’s goals). This is why the Addin doesn’t yet control everyone in the world. They are the wolves and wolves need sheep. If they eat all the sheep, they will have no one to rule over and no more sheep to eat. As such, there are certain limits on Addin, power but individuals sometimes stretch these limits. And there can be controversy, even among the Addin about how much is too much use of power.

On the other hand, the protagonists in the Kyrennei Series initially know little about the limits of magic as most of their magic has been suppressed for centuries. A key moment comes when Aranka Miko, the first Kyrennei to take her true form in modern times shows a group of resistance fighters that she has abilities unknown for centuries. Even then, any magic beyond the terrible power of the Addin and the simple power of the Kyrennei to resist the Addin seems very limited indeed. But eventually the Kyrennei find that their physical weakness is balanced by greater magical strength than anyone dreamed.

Apply basic logic and be consistent… mostly

You may hate logic and believe that consistency is for fools (and you may even have a fun plot). However, you are likely to have a lot of unhappy readers (and a few angry ones). Not all readers insist on logical consistency but many in fantasy and science fiction genres do.

As a reader, I’m not a zealot (in that I don’t go to great lengths to try to find logical inconsistencies in books I read). But I am like most fantasy readers in that obvious issues simply distract me from the story and take me out of the “fictive dream” (that state in which you are feeling and experiencing the story with the characters). And whether your genre is fantasy or any other sort of fiction, it’s a mortal sin for a writer to boot the reader out of this dream state. It’s what makes readers put books down for a minute… or indefinitely. Don’t do it.

As long as you keep the reader feeling and experiencing the story, other writerly sins will often be forgiven and forgotten. And an underlying sense of reality and consistency is crucial to keeping the reader engaged.

How does that apply to developing magical systems? Magic is supposed to be illogical, right?

Yes and no. Magic is supposed to go beyond science. You can rewrite the rules of science. But you must still have rules. Gravity is a “rule” that keeps us from floating away into space and the rules of magic keep the reader firmly on the ground in your fantasy world.

There are rules about what magic can and cannot do. You make the rules. Then you play by them. Make sure that if magic can’t do something in chapter one there is a darned good reason if it can do it in chapter eight (and visa versa). If you give your main character the ability to magically transport themselves, you’re going to have to give a good reason for how they get stuck in any dangerous situation that your plot requires. Why wouldn’t they just teleport themselves away? Whatever magic you give your characters they have to actually use it when in need, unless there are specific reasons why they can’t.  

In addition, if everyone can do magic in your fictional world, there must be a good reason if they don’t use it all the time (perhaps it is tiring or comes at some other price). If magic users can transform any substance or creature into another substance or creature, your magic users should never be poor. They could just transform dirt into gold. In fact gold would be as worthless as dirt. In a world with lots of transformation magic, no one should be hungry. But make sure you know if any magical transformations are permanent or not. Eating bread that turns back into rocks after an hour might be a bad idea.

So, consistency is good.

Creative Commons image by  Hans Splinter

Creative Commons image by  Hans Splinter

But… too much consistency can be a problem. If every use of magic always works exactly the same and is always successful, you’ll be giving up a great source of suspense for your plot. It often works best if magical ability isn’t absolute or well understood by the characters and magic doesn’t always work. This adds conflict, suspense and interest to the story. But again, the author must understand why the magic works in some instances and not in others, even if the characters are dismayed and confused.

Another common logical blunder occurs when writers set up the belief that magic takes a lifetime to learn. Magic users are invariably very old in such tales, until the main character arrives (usually an adolescent) who is supposed to learn magic. But the adolescent usually masters magic in a matter of weeks or months and soon exceeds the abilities of his or her teachers. This isn’t just a tired plotline. It’s also a logical inconsistency. David Eddings actually pulled this off in his Belgariad series, but it wasn’t nearly so tired a plotline when he did it (and his version is still among the best).

More importantly, he dealt with the logical inconsistencies. First, the talented adolescent was the answer to a prophecy and expected to be far stronger in magic than everyone else. Second, it did take him a few years (not weeks) to get to be really good. Third, the reason most magic users were ancient was that the talent for magic in Eddings’ world is exceedingly rare, so by the time the main character was born all the other magic users had grown very old. And fourth, even when the amazingly strong adolescent had come into his power, he still needed to consult with his technically weaker but more experienced teachers on a lot of issues, so it was still clear that he was strong but inexperienced.

Magic should not be THE key to the plot

Here’s an interesting irony for you. Fantasy must have some sort of magic to be fantasy and yet it isn’t a good idea to make magic the key to resolving your plot problem. The crux of fiction is a conflict or a problem that the main characters must solve. But fantasy writers shouldn’t just “magic away” the problem.

For example, if you have a young adventurer faced with an evil tyrant of great power in your story and the young adventurer must rescue someone, escape from somewhere, retrieve an important object or win a battle resulting in freedom from oppression (or one of the many other things that such adventurers do in fantasy books), it is inadvisable to simply say that your young adventurer learned a new magical skill and “bam!” the evil tyrant is sidelined or dead. This makes for a boring story and a poor ending, even if the rest of the plot is great.

Unlike most of the other rules in my code of magic, this one is often broken by commercial fantasy writers and sometimes stories that break this rule even have a moderate amount of success. However, you should note that the most successful fantasy does follow this rule. Harry Potter wins through moral fortitude, loyalty to friends and family and inner freedom of spirit, not because his patronus is just stronger. Frodo wins with only incidental use of magical items (like cloaks) by stamina, undergoing hardship and the final moral victory over the temptation of power.

The thing that makes these stories work is that the characters had to change in order to win. If Frodo had to climb Mount Doom on the first day of the Fellowship of the Ring, he would have failed. Harry Potter too. Maya Gardener in the second trilogy of the Kyrennei Series is frozen in fear in the beginning. It is only through many trials and experiences that she comes to choose her own path and stand up to aggression when it counts most.

That’s because magic, as important as it is to fantasy stories, cannot be “the magic bullet” of the plot. Magic is a tool in fantasy, but stories driven by changing characters facing obstacles with inner strength will always win the day.

Violence in fiction and the concept of deep hope

Violence in real life is brutal, traumatizing and usually over before you have a chance to think or react. 

I've been mercifully fortunate to undergo only a few incidents of real violence or narrowly averted violence in my life.  I was once grabbed by a man in a dark, deserted street, but I managed to trick him into believing that I had friends in the doorway of a nearby building, so that he let go of me for a second. And I had fast feet.

As a journalist during the conflicts in the Balkans, I often saw the aftermath of violence, but only rarely was I in the middle of it. One terrifying night in the summer of 2001, I ran for my life through dark deserted streets to escape from a mob firing automatic weapons. When I was finally able to get indoors, a man who was out of his head with terror leaped on me and tried to sexually assault me. I fought him off and then had to lay on the floor of a room while bullets whizzed by the open windows and pinged off of the gutters just a few feet away.

Those experiences have given me an idea of what real violence is like, and the discrepancy between that reality and the way violence is usually portrayed in books and movies is often disturbing. Before I had those experiences I found gratuitous violence in fiction to be merely boring. Violence that is divorced from emotion and real human reactions of shock and trauma felt meaningless. After my experiences in conflict areas, it feels both meaningless and disrespectful, dismissive of the experiences of those who have undergone far worse than I have.

Arie's rules of fictional violence

I am reasonably tough and I wasn't traumatized by my experiences. I'm not all that disturbed by reading violence. But I usually avoid books that seem to be primarily about violence.

And yet my books have fictional violence in them. My contemporary fantasy The Kyrennei Series has even been called a thriller by reviewers, due to the violent content. 

Let me lay it out clearly then. I don't write violence the way 80 to 90 percent of action and thriller books are written. Here are my rules of violence in fiction:

  • The violence in a good thriller isn’t where the greatest suspense is. The suspense is in our emotions about the characters.
  • And yet the violence must be integral to the plot. It should not be an aside just stuck in there to titillate. 
  • Violent scenes should be brutal, even traumatic, and avoided when possible by both the characters and writers alike.
  • Violent scenes should not be entirely pleasant even for the reader. Making it purely entertaining is a betrayal. 

That said, there are times when you can’t avoid violence in fiction. And it is better to have it out there than in real life. The story must be told. And The Kyrennei Series is a hard and desperate story. It’s fiction—even fantasy—on the literal plane. And yet there is a deeper level of reality where this story is true. And that truth has to be told. Even when it’s hard.

The road to deep hope leads through darkness

A reader recently told me that my books are like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a great book, and at first I was simply pleased to be favorably compared to an awesome author. But then I realized that The Road is categorized as literary fiction, not popular dystopia. I've been categorizing my books with things like The Hunger Games, not with literary dystopia. 

So, how in the world is The Soul and the Seed like The Road?  

They are in wildly different settings after all. The Road is in a grim, future in a destroyed world where people resort to cannibalism to survive. The Soul and the Seed is set solidly in the present. The dystopia is inherent in today’s socially harsh and physically unsustainable society… with one fatal twist that isn’t even apparent on the surface. 

The similarity is more in the way that violence, despair and emotion are dealt with. Much of the violence in popular urban fantasy and dystopia is “justified” and almost enjoyable to read.

And the violence in my books isn’t fun. It’s all too real. 

Why read it then?

To the readers of books like The Road or The Soul and the Seed, it’s partly the authentic spirit of the people that keeps you glued to the page. It's also the burning questions we carry inside whether we read this sort of thing or not. 

How do we live with despair? How do you go on through anything, no matter how terrible and gut-wrenching? Is hope just wishful thinking?

Authentic answers to these questions have always come hard. But they can be answered in bits and pieces--in the gentleness of a person forced to fight, in the need that binds the strong and the weak together, in the fact that you still seek life and comfort amid horrific circumstances, in the play of children in wartime, in the courage those who know they cannot win..

If you don’t have the darkness--real darkness--true and desperate, how can you have an story about hope?

I wanted to write about these things, but I also wanted to do it in a gripping story without the tiniest whiff of moralistic preaching. I am as much a seeker as the reader. The story is there to sweep you away to another reality while simultaneously making you question your own world, to terrify you and help you feel deeply.

And it may just help you find hope. Or not. Depending. But it will grip you and make you fall in love with the characters, regardless.

An example from The Soul and the Seed

Let me put it technically. The Soul and the Seed has three or four incidents of violence in it, depending on if you count hearing violence at a distance or not. That’s not a peaceful book. But it isn’t that much violence when compared to a book like The Hunger Games, which is (after the first third) essentially a sequence of violent incidents.

And yet readers who have read both The Hunger Games and The Soul and the Seed will often say the latter is scarier and more intense. People who can read about teenagers slaughtering each other in The Hunger Games, sometimes find The Kyrennei Series to be “too much.”

And that's how it goes. a writer can't please everyone. If I want the reader to feel hope deeply, I have to make the reader feel pain deeply as well.

The only problem is with telling readers that. I want to give fair warning about the violence in the series. And yet violence isn’t at the core of the story. There are other readers who find modern fiction too violent who will actually like The Soul and the Seed better than The Hunger Games. Which is more "intense" or "violent" Is to some degree subjective and bases on what kind of violence the reader is prepared to handle.

Sometimes a thing is described best by saying what it is not. I liked the idea of The Hunger Games up until the middle of the first book. But then the violence became mechanical. The emotion slid into melodrama, even though it didn't need to. By the third book the violence read like the description of a video game. It wasn’t painful to read. It was a game.

Not everything must be painful, but if you want real hope, it is likely that getting to it will hurt.

And that is what The Kyrennei Series does. It goes for real hope. Hope that doesn’t pull any punches. And it is wrenching to get there.

Books for 99 cents

Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series) will be published on July 7. As of today, it is available for preorder. For just a few days you can get it for 99 cents. Next week the price goes up to $2.99 and then to $3.99 when it's published on July 7.

Book 3 of the series, The Taken and the Free, is on sale this week at 99 cents too, for the last time. Time to get your summer reading. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, I have a special offer going. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.

How can a reader find the ideal book when all the descriptions sound the same?

Am I the only reader who finds that book descriptions have started to sound way too similar? 

On the back of every novel you see it. Action! Drama! Intensity! Guy in pursuit! Girl in despair! Snappy prose! One- or two-word descriptions by celebrities. "Fantastic!" "A masterpiece!" 

How do you tell which book you will really like? 

I don't know about you, but I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like. I get frustrated when I pick up book after book and read a third of the way in and find that it really isn't my thing. Half the time it's not even poorly written. It just doesn't have the atmosphere I like or I don't care about the stoic characters.  

That's because readers are diverse. Some readers like physical action. Others prefer wrenching emotions. Some can’t stand the internal tension but are fine with violence. Some insist on sex scenes. Others can do without the details. Some books are harshly literary and others are more cozy. And those are issues that mostly cross genres and are true regardless of specific themes. 

So, why is it that it is so hard to tell what the heart and soul of a book will be like from the description?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. The description can only be 100 to 150 words or about a dozen sentences. There are only so many combinations of grammatical sentences possible. 
  2. There are rules. The writer must present who the main character is and what their problem or goal is immediately. It's not just the industry standard. That part makes good sense for readers too.
  3. The blurb has to give an indication of genre and the major themes and that takes up most of the space.
  4. And then few blurbs ever say what the book is not. No one is going to advertise a book by saying it isn't intelligent, even if it's definitely NOT literary fiction. And no mystery writer will say their book isn't suspenseful, even if the truth is that it's pretty cozy and the suspense is at a minimum.
  5. If there is violence in the book, this will often be made clear but no one will ever tell you that it is gratuitous, video-game-style violence. Every violent thriller or dystopian novel will insist that it is gritty and realistic--employing characters with heart, even when its main character is a stock tough guy who leaps, shoots and dashes through the pages. 

So, there are some legitimate reasons for the look-alike cover blurbs. But what is a reader to do? I love good fantasy and I like contemporary thrillers, but I don't like gratuitous violence and those genres are often filled with it. I enjoy historical fiction but I prefer a story with a casual tone and characters from everyday life rather than momentous language and well-known figures of history. I can read virtually any genre as long as it is neither too dry and literary nor too brainless. I barely know how to describe the humor I like. How can I find books that will actually suit my taste?  

And worse yet, how do I as an author give readers a feel for the heart and soul of my books in the space of a blurb?

My first book (The Soul and the Seed) starts with a teenage girl imprisoned in a laboratory by doctors with nefarious motives. Given that, it's hard to convey that this is not a story about teenage angst. There is violence in the story. I wouldn't leave that out of the description, because some people really don't want to read any violence of any kind and this is pretty heavy-duty intense stuff. Yet the story isn't primarily about violence. Most important of all, it's hard to convey the close, confiding tone of the story--like a friend telling you about their harrowing experiences--let alone the sense of magical realism, the deep connections to characters or how a book that is so dark can be primarily about hope. 

I follow all the blurb-writing rules and I'm not a terrible writer (at least I'm told I can string sentences together with some semblance of art) and what comes out?

Action! Drama! Intensity! Girl in despair! Guy to the rescue! 

Ah, I see the problem that all those other authors have while trying to describe their books when I'm the reader. My book is NOT like all most of those books. They are all vastly different. But in a blurb on the back cover it is very hard to get that across.

I love to hear from you. Feel free to comment using the bubble on the lower left. What are your frustrations as a reader? Do you agree that book blurbs are all the same?  Do you have any tips for how to decode which ones will suit you? Do you ever pick up a book, thinking it is going to be your thing and it isn't? Or do you ever randomly discover a fantastic book behind a description that didn't do it justice? 

Free books!

The publication of my fourth book is coming up. To celebrate, I'm going to give every new subscriber to my hearth-side email circle a free ebook. If you've looked at The Soul and the Seed and been curious or if you've read part of the series and haven't gotten around to reading the rest, now is your chance to do so for free. 

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here. That's where you get links to my latest blog posts as well as the occasional virtual cup of tea. There's no spam, thanks to the excellent security of Mailchimp. 
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Kindle, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.

The big lie about writing and getting rich

There's a modern obsession about a mythical connection between writing and making tons of money on the internet. At every turn, I encounter some version of this question recently asked on Quora, "Through what ways can I become wealthy if I am an extremely talented writer?"

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation (public domain image)

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation (public domain image)

It brings me back to a wonderful moment when I got to meet one of my personal heroines as a teenager. I read a book called The Cloud while I was an exchange student in Germany. It still hasn't been translated into English, so this was a challenge, but it was so well-written and the story was so gripping that I was hooked. The author, Gudrung Pausewang, was a very well-known author in Germany at the time and I read several of her other books and loved them all.  English speakers may not know her but Germans certainly did in the 1990s.

A few months after I read that first book, a foreign friend of mine had to visit a sweet German lady who was a friend of his father's to deliver something. He asked if I would like to go along because he'd heard that the old woman was a writer. Ironically, he was from Czechoslovakia (Pausewang's birthplace) and he didn't know her name. 

I went with him that day. And yes, the woman was my newly discovered favorite German author. I was blown away to meet such a staggering figure. 

But I was also a little disappointed. I assumed that being a famous, best selling author during her lifetime meant that she would be wealthy. Instead she lived in a humble cottage amid flowering shrubs with little more than the essentials and her bookcases. She was far from wealthy, although otherwise she lived up to my expectations in wit, wisdom and sheer presence. 

Gudrun Pausewang, author portrait

Gudrun Pausewang, author portrait

This was one of the hard lessons of my youth. Fabulously talented writers don't become wealthy by writing. Period.

If they become wealthy, which is rare, they do it by having a relative in the publishing business, by being a celebrity in some other capacity (actor, well-known psychologist, president, etc.), by developing excellent marketing skills, by investing inherited or previously acquired financial assets (in marketing), by utilizing interpersonal manipulation and similar pursuits. 

Writing is an adjunct skill. It is helpful to many other careers or conditions, but it isn't the primary vehicle.

When I was an up-and-coming journalism intern in 1999, one of my mentors gave me some good perspective:  "Writers who are good enough to write for a top newspaper are a dime a dozen. But not many make it. The real deciding factors are connections and bull-headed persistence." 

It's as true today as it was in the 1990s--probably more so.

The vast majority of people who make a living writing actually make a living through using (rather than wasting) some degree of prior celebrity, through skillfully working social or family connections and through intelligently investing money in marketing. Despite the fact that these sorts of careers are out of reach for most people, they still require motivation and hard work even for those born into privilege.

Here's the cold hard facts about publishing today.

  • There are many poorly written, moderately successful books. These books are successful based purely on other skills or preconditions. There are a few wildly successful, well-written books. These combine other skills/conditions with excellent writing.
  • There are thousands upon thousands of fantastic, rock-your-world books that are languishing in obscurity. They had the benefit of good writing but the writer lacked other conditions or skills necessary to make them successful.
  • Obviously, there are also millions upon millions of crappy, boring books also languishing in obscurity (camouflaging the relatively few good ones) written by authors who lacked both the conditions and skills to make money and the ability too write well. That's true but it, unfortunately, doesn't mean that just because your book is great, you will find success.

So, when I'm asked about what a talented writer should do, I have my own set of advice based on today's conditions:

  • First, determine if you really can write well. Get some independent, very critical opinions from professionals who don't know you. Insist that you want a real assessment.
  • If it turns out that you can write "extremely well" AND you have one of the prized pre-conditions (some celebrity in a field, a lot of inherited money and/or social and family connections in media, publishing and/or entertainment industries), I would suggest you spend the next ten years perfecting your writing skills, writing a minimum of 2,000 focused words per day. And if you stick with it, you have a reasonable chance of at least making some money from "writing," even though you will actually be making money from capitalizing on your pre-existing conditions and there may be a lot of other ways you could do that that would be more lucrative.
  • If you don't have the preconditions but you are assured that your writing is spectacular, decide if you love writing beyond anything else. If so, spend the next ten years developing your writing further as described, while working a marketing or media job as hard as you possibly can. With a large dose of luck, you might be moderately successful. though you will have to accept that those born into better preconditions will always outpace you.
  • However, if you are assured that your writing is excellent and you have a job or a life you can tolerate, just write. Forget about becoming wealthy and write. Pity the poor fools who think wealth is important when they already have the joy of writing.

I have made a living writing in one way or another most of my adult life. However, most of that time was spent writing what an editor told me to write in the style that a boss wanted. For me "getting rich writing" would mean having the financial independence to write the stories I have always wanted to read without having to worry about the next paycheck.

What does getting rich mean to you? Do you have a passion that you'd love to make your living at? How much marketing and networking can you do before that becomes your primary occupation? What are you willing to do to follow your passion? I love to hear from you. Comment using the comment's button on the lower left and share this post with your friends using the button on the lower right. 

Character development the easy way

There are all kinds of books on writing that will tell you how to develop deep, multi-dimensional characters. And yet most leave out a few easy and essential early steps that make all the difference.

I’m not saying that character development is easy. Good, deep character development is very hard. It’s arguably one of the hardest things about writing fiction and also the most important thing.

But there are harder ways to do it and there are easier ways to do it. This the easier way to do something that is hard enough even if you don’t make it any harder than necessary.

Step 1: Choose models

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Using real-life people as models for you characters is not plagiarism and it is not slander. The whole point of using a real person as a model for your character is that you want to come up with a new person. The model is only a starting point and usually only covers one facet of the character.

The key point is that you actually don’t want one model for your character. You probably want at least three. You want one person who looks more or less like what you want your character to look like. You want another person who has a personality and speaking style like you want your character to have. And you want one person who has a job or situation like you want your character to have. It is much simpler to take these three things from three different people. That way you have the flexibility to work within your plot. And no one can say that you slandered them by putting them in your story.

Why is it important to have models? Well, models make it easy. You don’t have to do it this way. You can make your ten or twenty essential characters up out of whole cloth and try to keep their faces and mannerisms in your head through your book or series of books.

But… well, good luck with that.

If you’re name is George Martin or Diana Gabaldon you can ignore this and all of my advice. Those authors are either doing this already or they are geniuses with astronomical IQs.

Here’s a practical example of what I’m talking about. Let’s say you need a police officer in your story.

There. You already have a job for your character. But figure out what kind of police officer, in what position, in what size of town you need. Then if possible find someone who is a police officer in that sort of situation. The job part is actually one situation where people like to be models for fiction. If possible, find a friendly cop in the kind of position you need and tell them that you want to write about someone in a similar position who isn’t them, who looks completely different and has a different personality but the same job. Professionals will often be thrilled to tell you all the crucial details about that job.

I’ve got a landscaper in my current work-in-progress and my younger brother is a landscaper. It’s very handy to pick his brain to find out exactly what my landscaper should be doing at various times of the year. But my landscaper couldn’t be more different physically or emotionally from my brother.

Okay, I went a bit backwards on this one. The characters at the bottom of this cover (Rick and Kenyen, as readers of the Kyrennei series will know) are recognizable but I actually didn't find these pictures on ShutterStock until I was finished writing the first three books.  That made finding the right pictures hard. But I'd had these characters in my head for twenty years, and had a very clear picture of each of them, although Rick does sort of look suspiciously like an Iraqi friend of mine who likes to cook.

Okay, I went a bit backwards on this one. The characters at the bottom of this cover (Rick and Kenyen, as readers of the Kyrennei series will know) are recognizable but I actually didn't find these pictures on ShutterStock until I was finished writing the first three books.  That made finding the right pictures hard. But I'd had these characters in my head for twenty years, and had a very clear picture of each of them, although Rick does sort of look suspiciously like an Iraqi friend of mine who likes to cook.

As for the physical picture of your character, think about what physical characteristics will suit the character in your story. Don’t forget that besides hair color, eye color and height you have many other factors to play with. Don’t make all your characters be of average weight and build. Don’t make all your characters the same race as you. Give your characters some small differentiating feature. Once you figure out what general kind of physical appearance you need, try to find someone who looks like that.

Think about your circle of friends and acquaintances or look up photos on Google. You can seriously google “Picture of tall brown-haired man” and get a ton of great pictures of tall, brown-haired men. Look at them and pick one. Then copy the link to your research file. Do NOT use this photo in any publication as you probably don’t have the copyright privileges to do so. But do refer back to it. Keep it in front of you enough that you can visualize the character.

With a main character or other key character you might still want to change some important detail of the character’s appearance but make it something you can visualize in that photo. Pick a person without a scar and give them a scar in your mind. Or glasses. Or sideburns.

The most difficult and most important part is your character’s personality. But again the same technique will serve you well. Choose a person to be your emotional model. This time it is really better to choose someone you know personally. Otherwise, you won’t know their reactions in enough depth. Then think about that person in various situations. How would he or she react if their spouse broke up with them or if they won a writing contest or if they had to tell a loved one terrible news? Get used to that person’s reactions and way of relating. Play amateur psychologist and make up reasons for why a person might have those particular reactions. Or if you know why your real-world model has those reactions, change the reasons up a bit.

You can in fact use more than one emotional model for one character. Combine different traits from two different people. Again think how your character with the personality he or she has would react in various situations.

I have a character in my current work-in-progress who is trans-racially adopted. I use what I know of people in that situation to inform me about her emotional make up. But she is also the kind of person who avoids conflict at all cost and tends to freeze up when there is tension.

A relative of mine, who is also one of my trusted beta readers, talks about struggling with freezing up in the face of conflict. So, I use my relative’s reactions to inform how this character might react. The character isn't “supposed to be” my relative. The girl in the story is very different in other ways, but it is handy to have an emotional model.

It is particularly handy to have one who likes being an emotional model and is happy to read through the story and pick out how I’ve slipped up on the personality type. That is a rare treat. You won’t usually be able to tell your emotional models that they have a personality double in your story and you might have to go on the run if you do tell, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Step 2: Fill out a character sheet

The next thing you do with your budding characters is print out a copy of this free character sheet I developed, combining the best qualities of the many character sheets out there. You’ll need a copy for each major character.


Wait. You don’t have to fill out the whole thing immediately. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Fill out as much as comes easily to you given your choice of models for this character. If you don’t know your character’s family history yet and it isn’t key to the plot in the beginning, leave it blank for now. You may find that the story will provide you with the answers you need as you deepen your plot.

So, in the beginning, just fill out those parts you can and then come back later and fill in other parts as you go.

Why am I asking you to do this exercise that looks like a worksheet from school and doesn’t seem to have much in common with writing? Because it will save you endless blood, sweat and tears later.

You may think you know your characters well now but after 70,000 words and many months of work are you really sure you’re going to remember the make of this character’s car or the color of that character’s eyes? Even when it was mentioned only once somewhere in your narrative?

Remembering those references will be much harder than you think. And finding them again is tedious and time consuming, assuming you even remember to look. What if you decide to put this manuscript aside for a couple of months and get back to it later? It will be much less work to get back into if you can quickly review the crucial information about your characters.

There is nothing worse than having a reader catch you being inconsistent. “I’m confused. In chapter 1 she had blue eyes. In chapter 10 she has brown eyes.”


Keep character sheets. I’ve made one for you and it’s free.

Step 3: Think about what your characters want

I know the character’s desires are on the character sheet but it is likely that with many characters you won’t be able to come up with all of their desires in the very beginning.

This is a step that starts in the beginning and keeps going throughout the writing process. Remember that good fiction requires conflict or at least a problem to be solved. Conflicts and problems create suffering of some kind in a character. And if you ask a Buddhist guru (or a writer) what the root of human suffering is, you will be told that it is desire.

Without desire, there is no suffering and without suffering, there is no conflict. Make your characters yearn for something and you have story.

Deny your characters what they want and you create suffering. There is a law in fiction that says that the more you make a characters suffer, the more your reader will love them. This is almost always true. You can make a character too pitiful and lose the reader’s sympathy and respect but generally if your character suffers, your reader will keep reading.

Desire doesn’t have to be a fantastic dream or an overt goal and suffering need not involve physical pain. Sometimes a character simply wants to be able to live in peace or to find the answer to nagging internal questions. But this desire must be made clear and vivid to the reader. The more abstract the desire, the harder the writer’s job is.

Suffering is the same way. While commercial fiction usually involves a character suffering in some dramatic way involving physical injury, grief, betrayal or denial of love, it is very possible to make a compelling story in which the suffering is deep and less easily understood. It is only that doing more abstract and less overtly tangible things with a character is harder to do well.

Step 4: Visualize scenes like a movie or act them out

Either before you write or in the early stages of writing your first draft, visualize new scenes in your head. Let them play like a movie a few times. Get a picture of the characters and watch how they move. Get a feeling for them and watch what they do and say.

Try out the scene in a few different ways. What works best? What actions and words seem natural to your characters?

I have been known to act out scenes from my stories, standing in the middle of the room and stepping back and forth to take on the roles of different characters in a heated debate or moving around the room to block out a combat scene, making sure the physical actions will add up in three-dimensional space. I don’t really recommend doing this when other people are watching or listening. It requires too much stopping and backing up and redoing to be very entertaining and your goal is not to be silly but to iron out specific details that will then come across very real in the story.

Do I look slightly crazy while I talk to myself and have fights with the air? I might but this is another reason to do it in private. If the NSA is spying on me through my computer’s webcam, at least they’ll know what all my Google searches involving borders, bridges and weapons are about.

Step 5: Start writing or plotting, whichever is relevant.

There are two kinds of writers, it is said. The plotters and the pantsers.

Plotters carefully plan out their story with note cards, time-lines and outlines before they ever sit down to write.

Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They get the basic groundwork in place, particularly the settings, premise of the story, key conflict and the characters, including their initial desires. Then they sit down at the keyboard and let the characters do their thing.

I’m a pantser, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Pantsers don’t necessarily do less work in preparation for writing. Flying free in writing is best done if you have all the necessary back-up - well-developed characters, settings, premise and initial conflict. I usually know where the story is going within the next 20,000 words. And I have a vague idea of the ending but I don’t usually know how I’m going to get there.

I have often pulled up Google Earth, plunked my characters down in one place and told them they have to get to another place, given whatever the conditions of the story are (chase, pursuit or search for something), and then I let Google Earth surprise me and the characters. It almost always works beautifully, providing me with plot twists I never would have come up with on my own.

Oh, there’s a river there. That’s a problem. How are my heroes going to get across while being chased by helicopters. Ah, there’s a bridge… But only one bridge. And it will be guarded by the antagonists, obviously.

You can see where that’s going.

But this isn’t a general guide to plotting. This is about characters. And which ever way you choose to write, whether plotting or pantsing, you have now come to the point where you have to just do it. You hold onto the sense of your characters as individuals that you have developed in the previous steps and you feel their desire while you work out the specifics of your story. This will result in what is called a “character-driven story.” But that is just a fancy name for good fiction. All good fiction is character-driven, even the fiction that is action packed.

Step 6: Now change your characters

I know. I know. I said keep your characters consistent. But there is a difference between “consistent” and “stagnant.”

Real people faced with challenges and conflict change. Characters with a realistic personality should too.

Aranka Miko, the main character in The Soul and the Seed, is initially a frightened teenager imprisoned in a dark cage. How she rises in a troubled world to kindle the first flicker of hope in a thousand years is the core of the story..

Aranka Miko, the main character in The Soul and the Seed, is initially a frightened teenager imprisoned in a dark cage. How she rises in a troubled world to kindle the first flicker of hope in a thousand years is the core of the story..

Maybe this is the hard part for some, but I contend that if you’ve done the previous steps well this will be the easy part. I have rarely decided beforehand how my characters are going to change. I have simple set up characters and given them unfulfilled desires and a conflict. Then I followed where they led and the characters changed by the time the story was done.

Several reviewers of my first book gushed, “You can see the characters growing and changing before your eyes.”

I hadn’t realized when I started the story that the growth of the characters would be so obvious so soon. I also thought the only character to really change would be the main character. But that wasn’t the case. Because my major characters were strong and unique and had real personalities and they were faced with huge challenges, they had to change and I didn’t have to force it or consciously manipulate it that much.

In case this doesn’t come as easy in every story, remember to go back to the character’s desires. Do they get what they want? Are they thwarted? Does what they wanted turn out to be as good as they thought it would be? How does this impact the character?

Step 7: Rewrite and edit with an eye to character consistency

When you are done with your first draft, it’s time to rewrite and edit, then edit some more, then put the story aside and pick it up again and edit some more, and then edit again… and again.

That’s just the reality of writing. I edit certain parts roughly as I go and my first drafts are relatively clean. I rarely have to change major plot twists after the first draft is done, despite my seat-of-the-pants writing style. But I do have to edit and edit and edit. Everyone does who wants to turn out good writing.

When you edit, pay particular attention to what your characters look like and what they say and do. Make sure you have kept their appearances consistent and that the actions and words of each character fit their personality and situation. If you have a feisty, firebrand for a heroine, you can’t suddenly have her meekly take insults just because the plot requires that she is calm and collected for once. You can get away with having her learn to be calm and collected but that is going to take some work.

Read your text out loud and particularly your dialogue scenes. Go through dialogue several times, trying to hear the voices of your characters. What kind of voices do they have? Do they have an accent compared to you? What is the emotion behind the words?

I hope these tips come in handy. What are your favorite tips for developing characters? I would love to hear from you. Put a comment in below and keep in touch.

The Nine Mortal Sins of Worldbuilding

Here is the second part of my free worldbuilding workshop materials. The previous post outlined what you should strive for in worldbuilding. Here is a quick rundown on what not to do. I'm not implying that you are doing these things, but at the very least this is good comic relief for readers and writers of fantasy and science fiction. 

1.      The sin of illogical history: Don't forget to indicate why the events of your story are happening now. Stories involve conflict. So, first you have to determine what the conflict is. Second, you have to say why it is happening now instead of 20 years ago or 20 years in the future. If aliens are invading, why are they invading now?

Example: In my book The Soul and the Seed, the mind-controlling Addin Association has been around forever, meddling in most of the wars and dirty politics of human history. BUT the story is happening now (in today's world) because a fluke of genetics (influenced by some ancient magic-wielding mystics has caused Kyrennei genes to crop up in a few individuals. That gives rise to the core conflict of the story.. The reason for this happening right now is a minor point but it is essential to believability.

2. The sin of completely logical history:  If you create a fictional history, don't make it entirely logical and simplistic. Determine the major events of history that affect your characters. Make up reasons for the social norms and economic realities of your world. You don't have to write them into your story but you should have a general sense of them. Make them mostly logical but include the occasional chance event.

Example: J.R.R. Tolkien developed detailed backstories and histories for all of his characters and cultures. His history is as full of intricacies and discrepancies as real history is. There is an overall logic but the details have the realism of chaotic and natural events.  A brother's jealousy unleashes an unforeseeable cascade of major historical events and so forth. This is one of the reason's Tolkien's world rings so true to generations of readers.

3. The sin of illogical magic: Don't make up magical powers for the inhabitants of your world without considering how they will affect history, society, the environment, relationships and so forth. Don't allow your magic users to do anything they want without limit or cost because the logical consequences of that in your society will get out of hand fast and you will be stuck with a huge mess. The best way to invent magic is to set limits on it or make it costly or exhausting to carry out. In essence, fictional magic requires a system of checks and balances. You also need to consider whether or not everyone in your world has the same special powers and if they don't, why those with special powers haven't taken over the world yet.

Example: David Eddings developed one of the best systems of magic in fantasy. His sorcerers can do almost anything, except will something out of existence. But the use of magic makes a kind of "noise" that other magic-users can hear and it expends energy. There are logical rules to Eddings' special physics and his world feels quite possible and authentic, despite all the magic. The rules aren't explained straight out or very early in the story. They come up when they are needed and a handy narrative device is used for the explanations of the more complex rules. An older sorcerer has to teach a younger sorcerer about the rules of magic and the reader gets to learn too. But because this doesn't happen in the very beginning and the reader cares a great deal about the younger sorcerer by that point, there is no sense of this being an info dump. There are opposing sides among magic users and even the protagonists among the sorcerers tend to be few, eccentric and anti-social, which is why they haven't taken over the world yet. And Edding's magic-users do hold a lot of political and social power even so. That is part of what makes his world so believable. 

4.  The sin of too much explanation too soon: This is the worldbuilding rule that everyone knows about and almost no one can follow. It is very hard to start the action off in your world in the beginning without explaining your world to the reader. You have the feeling that your reader can't possibly understand what is going on unless you explain the specifics of your world first. There are two keys to doing the explanation right and avoiding the dreaded "info dump."

First, accept that your reader not knowing everything about your world is usually a good thing. The mystery over what exactly is happening can be key to creating suspense in the beginning of your novel. Don't keep secrets from your reader in an obvious way. Instead, either have an inexperienced, young or foreign character who doesn't know the specifics either and let your reader learn along with them OR make your narrator speak or think as though addressing someone who already knows and drop hints as you go. 

Second, make sure YOU know your world (and particularly any magic or special physics) really well BEFORE you start writing. One of the main causes of info dumping is actually writers who are exploring their world while writing. Do some background writing first. Make sure you know your world very well before you start your actual story and then get yourself into the mindset of your characters. Your characters won't feel the need to explain everything right off the bat because the world is "normal" to them or in some cases they won't know about the special physics of your world either. In either case, if you know your world well enough and you put yourself in your characters' shoes, the details of your world will come up when they are truly needed. 

Examples: The book Open Minds by successful indie author Susan Kaye Quinn opens with an everyday high school scene in a world where everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts, except the main character who has a sort of disability so she can't hear thoughts. Because she is unique in her world and this is an issue for her every day in high school (she is ostracized by other kids), it is natural that she thinks about this and explains it to the reader immediately. It doesn't feel like an info dump. It makes for a great opening to a good series. My first book The Soul and the Seed, also starts in high school, but my main character believes she lives in the same world as you and me. She knows nothing about the clandestine mind-control cult that rules the world or the genetic fluke that makes her at threat to their power and the reader is pleasantly confused until chapter 5, when the narrative switches to someone who knows what is going on. It works (at least according to my enthusiastic readers) because the suspense of not knowing why the world is going haywire is delicious. And by the time you get my second narrator's explanation, the reader is so hungry for the details that I have never been accused of info dumping. 

5. The sin of everyone speaking English: Don't make everyone on an entire planet speak the same language unless they have lived with instant long-distance communication for at least five generations. Don't allow aliens who have never been in contact to talk to each other in a common language. You are free to indicate that there are other languages being spoken while still writing the dialogue in English. Use the fact that characters can't always understand each other to enhance tension. If you want to dabble in inventing languages, expect to do a lot of research. That is one of the more advanced worldbuilding options.

Example: I'm actually going to give a negative example here. I love Robert Jordan's fantasy world. I love it. I love living in it for long periods of time. But there is one thing that really bugs me about it. The invaders from across the sea speak the same language as people they have had no contact with for centuries. It only takes a few hundred years for a language to change so drastically that it can no longer be understood by the original speakers. Try reading Beowolf in the original some time. That's English and you won't understand three words, unless you are a serious linguistic scholar. Even Shakespeare takes work and there is a reason for that. Languages change. Robert Jordan actually gets a pass on this because the rest of his worldbuilding is so spectacularly well done and he does actually have other languages in other parts of his world. There are many many books that are seriously damaged by this sin, however.

6. The sin of stereotyping real cultures: Don't abuse ethnic, religious or other groups of people from the real world. This isn't just political correctness to avoid being labeled as a racist or something similar, although that is a real danger if you accidentally make all your good guys "fair" and all your bad guys "dark lords." But at the most basic level this is about believability. If you are even going to hint at a real ethnic or religious group in your story, you had better do your research and make sure you can portray that group in detail. It isn't just that promoting stereotypes is despicable. It is that someone among your readers will know at least something about any culture you can come up with and they will be very annoyed and ditch your story if you get the details wrong or make the group too stereotypical.

Example: Okay, another negative example, but this time I'm going to pick on myself. I didn't stereotype another culture but I do use a lot of real existing cultures in my Kyrennei Series. I am an international journalist and linguist, so I am generally pretty confident about my cultural stuff. I did some serious research to come up with a Hebrew endearment that a man raised in Israel might really use under the circumstances in the book. I didn't, however, call up my friend who is married to a Japanese woman and spent ten plus years in Japan to ask about my Japanese character's name. I should have but there were reasons. I went on my own research and used a name I found on a list of uncommon Japanese names. I needed an uncommon name because my character's subculture likes uncommon names. The name Cho is very uncommon in Japan and would have to be a shortened version of Choko, which was my original idea. But other names I considered would have been better. I should have made that call. No one who doesn't know Japan will ever care but readers who do know Japan will pause and wonder about Cho's name when they read my book. That is distraction and distraction in fiction is almost always bad by definition. 

7. The sin of stereotyping your fictional cultures: Don't make everyone in your fictional culture, religion or nationality agree on everything. That just isn't realistic. Unless you are creating a new version of the Borg, individuals within your fictional cultures and religions should disagree on details and sometimes even on major issues. And if you are creating a new version of the Borg, the effects of that monolithic society should be explored and shown in your story.

Example: This is really too complicated to summarize easily. Read Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Seriously. If you haven't read it, what are you thinking trying to write speculative fiction. :) It's required reading! Jordan did a spectacular job of worldbuilding in general and particularly of portraying believable, diverse and well-textured fictional cultures.

8. The sin of no place: Gone are the days of "It was a dark and stormy night…" Today the most fashionable writing sin seems to be ignoring climate and place. It should at least randomly rain in your story. If it truly never rains, that would affect the climate, the smell of the place, the kinds of plants that grow there and so on. Have a sense of the natural environment and weather, even if your story is urban and primarily indoors. It greatly enhances believability.

Example: I think clouds may be mentioned once in the Divergent series. It's a fun read but the one major weakness of this popular series is the lack of a sense of place. I fear that the Divergent series, which is otherwise good enough to become a lasting classic will be a short-lived wonder, rather than a long-term phenomena, partly based on this sin.

9. The sin of no place to pee: Don't ignore infrastructure and sanitation. If you're constructing a whole society or city, you should know how waste gets taken care of, how food gets delivered and so forth. If you are dealing with a prisoner, don't forget that they do eventually have to go to the bathroom. If there is none, there will be consequences. You don't have to discuss these things in the text of your story but you have to have them in mind. Otherwise, you won't respond correctly  when one of those issues should have been mentioned in passing and you'll lose your reader's faith.

Example: I can actually think of quite a few examples in popular fantasy and science fiction where a prisoner has no possibility relieving themselves and the consequences of that are not taken into account, but I'm done picking on my favorite authors for today. I'll just point out how I solved this problem. In The Soul and the Seed, I have my narrator imprisoned in a cage in a warehouse for two and a half chapters. In order to create enough of a sense of place, I had to describe that environment with significant detail and there was simply no way around it. I had to equip the cages with bedpans. 

Writing Workshop Series: Worldbuilding for Believability

This is the first of my writing workshop posts in coordination with writing workshops at the Art Center at the Old Library in La Grande,, Oregon. 

First up is worldbuilding - the magic of creating believable settings and societies in fiction. Worldbuilding is often used as a specialized term for science fiction and fantasy writers but it's also a crucial craft tool for writers of historical and intercultural fiction. In many genres you will need to develop complex settings, cultures and societies. 

While this may seem like a minor issue in comparison to plot and character development, worldbuilding provides the foundation for two things even more basic to readable fiction - believability and conflict.  

Believability: A writer's portrayal of settings and culture is crucial to the reader's feeling of reality when reading fiction. That feeling of reality is closely tied to the sense of being engrossed in a story and the inability to put a book down.

Conflict: Every story revolves around a conflict of some sort. Often that conflict is rooted in a social, cultural or physical characteristic of the fictional world. In fact, if you need to heighten the conflict in any given story, adding an element of worldbuilding to it can often mean the difference between a mediocre conflict and a real whopper. 

And so... here are the top things to consider when building your world or describing the setting of your story:

1.       Your setting or world should have a purpose in your story. Avoid adding fantastical special effects "just because." That gets old fast. Even the world of Alice in Wonderland is carefully constructed for a purpose, even if it may seem to be a world endless absurd fantasy.

2.       You can start with the general setting or start with the main conflict of the plot or start with a great character. But wherever you start, these things should be tied together. If you start with the setting, your plot should be related to the setting. If you want to write story based in medieval Morocco, choose a problem for your characters to encounter that is integral to that setting. If you start with the plot, figure out which type of setting will serve the plot best. Is the conflict you've chosen best placed in the past, the future or the present? Will it benefit from being seen through a real culture of today or through a made-up culture?

3.       Think about the central conflict of your story and how it is affected by the world of your story. Do social or political factors play a role? Is there a culture clash? Is there a major need or hunger that economic or environmental conditions influence?

4.       A key to plot and character development is determining what your characters want and what stands in their way. Worldbuilding plays a big role here. Consider what social, political, economic, environmental or other factors influence what your characters want and how hard or not it is for them to get what they want.

5.       Ask yourself detailed questions about the setting and society where your story takes place. You won't need to include all of these details in your story but you do need to at least go over them in your head. There are lots of lists online detailing the types of questions you can run through.

6.       Take notes on whatever details you come up with. Keep cheat sheets on locations, characters, cultures and languages for quick reference. Just as it is important to keep notes on the hair and eye color of your minor characters, so that you don't have cousin Fred have gray eyes in Book 1 of your series and blue eyes in Book 3, it is also important to keep a record of places, cultures and languages, so that they stay consistent. You would be amazed at how glaring such mistakes are to people who aren't as wrapped up in the story as you are.

7.       Draw maps and plans of buildings, streets and towns whenever you are going to have characters in a specific location for more than one scene and do it even for one scene if it is an action scene. Draw a map of the whole country or world if you are going to have characters move around much or any sort of major political or economic intrigue.

8.       When describing events keep in mind whether it is night or day, what angle the sun is at, what the weather is like, which direction is east or west. You don't have to include all this but you should know because otherwise you will easily end up with sunlight streaming in a window that you said faced north.

9.       Ponder:

  • The climate: how it smells and feels
  • The food: what is available or popular and what isn't
  • The economy: what portion of the people are well-off or hungry
  • Clothing: don't assume it is the same as yours or Tolkien's, be specific
  • The physics: if there are multiple moons what does that do?
  • Hierarchies: who is in charge and why, who is above and below
  •  Needs: What do the people in your society need most, what is scarce?
  •  Luxuries: What are the signs of wealth and privilege, certain foods, clothes, etc.
  •  Instability vs. stability: what would it take to upset the order of your world?
  • How long have things been the way they are?
  • How has history affected the issues that are important in your society?

Writer's Toolbox: Screwdrivers and pliers - Writing and publishing terminology

Every profession has it's secret language and writing is no exception.

I'm putting together a collection of tools and inspiration for writers here on my blog site. And one of the first things that goes in that toolbox are the terms that writers use to talk about writing. I'm not talking about things like "grammar" or even what kind of keyboard one should use. I'm talking about the professional terms that are crucial to development of the craft and surviving in the world of authors. 

I have been writing since... I don't even know when. Maybe since I was seven and my family took a trip to Mexico and I wrote bits and pieces about it in a scrapbook. When I was a teenager I dabbled in fiction and then I turned to what I thought of as serious writing, i.e. newspaper journalism. While working as an international correspondent in places like Kosovo, the Ukraine, Ecuador and Bangladesh, I also took writing classes and joined writer's groups.

And from all those years of experience, I know for certain that writers get better. I haven't slid off the fence yet in the argument over talent versus experience. I think there are some assets that are handy to get genetically to be a writer. But I definitely know that no amount of inborn "talent" will make up for lack of practice and knowledge.

And the most basic knowledge, as with any profession, is knowing the professional lingo. That's not just so that you can talk to other writers and sound like you know what you're talking about. Each of the terms I will list here packs a key concept that writers use as surely as a carpenter uses an electric screwdriver or a sander. 

There are probably too many words I could list, so I'm going to just start with those terms and concepts that I have seen writers struggle with. I'm going to be teaching writing workshops this fall, so I am likely to add to the list as I go.

Genre woes

I'm not going to cover everything to do with genres. That's a huge topic but here are the terms that I have seen cause misunderstandings.

Genre-blending and genre-mixing: 

Genres were made up by the publishing and bookselling industry. It was an attempt to get people to buy more books and it worked. If a type of story was successful, publishers put out more of that kind of book and booksellers put them on a shelf next to the successful books of similar type.

But these categories are essentially arbitrary. Someone somewhere decided that all stories that hinge on a character trying to find out a secret (such as who done it or where is it?) should be put on a shelf together. And then someone else decided that stories where a romantic relationship is the central point should be on another shelf. Thus the mystery and romance genres were born.

That may be simple enough but then came science fiction, fantasy, chick lit... And now we have steampunk, new adult and dystopia. Each of these "genres" has a description but they are often indistinct and not mutually exclusive. For the publishing and bookselling industries this is a problem.

When a writer (I'm looking at you Morgan Daimler) writes what at first sounds like a mystery but puts it into a fantasy world with a romantic relationship as central to the action and aims it at a specific cultural or religious group of readers, your local bookstore is in trouble. They don't know where to shelf it and if Daimler had shelved hers in mystery, where it seems to belong on first inspection, I never would have read it, because mystery is one of the few things I almost never read.

Enter the age of Amazon and similar retailers. Thanks to complex algorithms, we can now categorize books much more precisely and readers can find what they want to read based on a lot of factors - the reader's age, culture, gender and interests as well as the the type of story or what is central to the plot. This means that writers and readers no longer have to stick to these arbitrary and ultimately claustrophobic categories known as genres. 

The result is a lot of genre-blending and genre-mixing in which writers take interesting facets of various genres and come up with something fresh and new that would have been "impossible to publish" ten years ago.


I would like to define one particular genre because I have seen several online forums where significant confusion over the definition reigned. Thanks to the popularity of books like The Hunger Games and Divergent, writers love to claim that they are writing dystopia these days.

The problem is that the virtual shelves of dystopia have been inundated with piles of books about zombies, vampires and apocalyptic disasters. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this fiction, most of it isn't dystopia.

The quick and dirty definition of dystopia is as easy to formulate as that for the romance genre. It is said that it isn't a romance if you can take the love part out and still have a plot. Similarly, it isn't dystopia if you can take the socio-political problems out and still have a plot.

Dystopia is the counter to utopia. It is society gone wrong in some crucial way. George Orwell is often held up as the father of the dystopian genre and a lot of dystopia is like Orwell's work, overt social commentary set in a totalitarian society that exaggerates certain elements of our own world to show what could happen if we continue in some unwise direction. Some dystopia is more subtle, showing an outwardly ideal society, often set in the future but showing how an individual can be harmed even within an ostensibly perfect system. More rare is dystopia set in our times and essentially in our world but highlighting particular aspects of contemporary society as dysfunctional.


Steampunk is a relatively new genre that includes stories that take place in a society that is not high tech but includes some technological advances. Some of the technology tends to be a bit fantastic, such as flying machines with flappable wings that run on steam engines. But it isn't all silly. Some steampunk is set in a future world where much of the high technoogy has broken down for one reason or another. Some of it is set in a fantasy world that is neither entirely modern nor entirely medieval.

New Adult:

New adult is sort of like a genre that occupies the crack between Young Adult and general adult-level genre fiction. I like the theory of a genre that appeals to twenty-somethings but alas New Adult has been largely taken over by stories set on or around college campuses that involve romance. It should legitimately be called New Adult Romance now, but for the time being the going term is New Adult. 

Narrative nonfiction:

Narrative nonfiction is a writing style as well as a genre. I have again seen a lot of confusion about it in the online world. Just about any sort of nonfiction can be written in narrative form, meaning written as if it were fiction... as a story. A lot of the best history books are being written this way as well as memoirs, self-help and inspirational books. There are also some pretty good technical how-to books written with at least elements of narrative style. 

Style and writing terms

This is not a comprehensive list, just the things that I have run into in discussions with writing students, writers or editors in the past year. 

First person

I am now writing in first person. I personally prefer first person narratives, even when I'm reading fiction and the author isn't really the character talking in the book. I like first person because it brings the reader right into the story intimately. I know there are disadvantages to it though. For one thing, the reader has to take my word for it. If I had written this paragraph in third person, I could have made the advantages of first person sound much more universal and authoritative. This way you just know that I like it.

Second person

You may be reading this either to stock your writer's toolbox or simply to be entertained. Whatever your reason, you are now reading a paragraph written in second person. Second person is what happens whenever you the reader are the primary character in the narrative. You can try it in fiction if you want but you'll find that it is exceedingly difficult to pull off well.

Third person

Most writers choose to write in third person. It's probably the most versatile point of view in terms of the types of voice and tone that the writer can employ. Third person simply means that the story is about a character who is named and referred to as he, she or it. The reader isn't addressed directly and the narrator remains in the background, never speaking directly about him- or herself. Arie Farnam wrote this paragraph in third person, which creates some minor problems when it comes to avoiding the passive voice.

Passive voice

Passive voice is often misunderstood. I am amazed at the number of writers and editors who are confused by what is passive and what isn't passive voice. The phrases above with "misunderstood," "amazed" and "confused" are all written in passive voice, as is this sentence.

Here, let met me fix that. (Because passive voice is evil, right?) Many people misunderstand passive voice. I see a lot of writers and editors who confuse awkward sentences and passive voice. I wrote the last three sentences in active voice.

If you go to a high school composition class, you will be told to avoid passive voice like the plague. And it is a good thing to do at the beginning. Beginning writers almost always overuse passive voice and it is very helpful to try to avoid it. The vast majority of sentences will be more concise and interesting in active voice.

The easiest way to avoid passive voice is to go through your writing and look for passive adjectives (adjectives that describe something that has happened to the noun, like "written", "flown" and "misunderstood.") Try turning these sentences into active sentences and see if they're better that way. Usually they will be.

Biut there will be times when they aren't. Passive voice isn't bad to the bone. There are reasons to use it. Laziness is, however, the most common reason it is used and that isn't a good reason. When I said "Passive voice is often misunderstood," I was avoiding having to say who misunderstands passive voice. I could have been doing that as a way of being diplomatic, which is sometimes a good idea, but I was surely also doing it partly because it is easier to hint that some mysterious "them" out there misunderstands passive voice than to do the hard work of thinking about exactly who does. 

I've recently had editors tell me things are passive voice when they aren't. Past perfect and present perfect sentences like "She had read all of my books" and "I've been working at the store" are not passive. The are easy to confuse with passive because the form of the verb used in those tenses in English (Fun fact: and in Russian!) is the same as the passive adjective used in passive voice. The linguistic term for this type of word is "the past passive participle." You really wanted to know that, didn't you?

Writing for a living

There is a lot of hype about writing as an entrepreneur lately. I get it. Writers need to think like business people in order to succeed. But the terminology can be scary. When you get right down to it "an author entrepreneur" is a person who makes a living from writing books.  

Self-publisher or indie-publisher:

These two terms get used interchangeably most of the time. Indie implies a bit more rebellion and a desire to keep independence even from retailers and other services. There are self-publishers who would gladly sign up with someone who would do a chunk of the business side of their work at the drop of a hat, in order to have more time to write, and independence be damned. But in general, both self-publishers and indie-publishers are writers out there trying to do serious writing and publishing, often as a business. Their primary goal is usually not fame and fortune or the kick of seeing their name on a book. And many never do see their name on a "book" because they stick to ebooks. It reminds me a bit of the culture of international freelance journalists of the 1980s and 1990s, minus the worn out shoes. It is chaotic and only the hardiest survive for long. 

Traditional publisher:

A traditional publisher is a company that makes a profit from actually acquiring rights to publish books, publishing them, selling them and paying authors a royalty. There will always be some overlap in these descriptions but a self-publisher doesn't become a traditional publisher just by giving their publishing "company" a name that is different from their author name. Neither does a vanity publisher become a traditional publisher by accidentally selling a few books and actually paying a royalty once in a blue moon. A traditional publisher has to turn a profit in the traditional way.

Vanity publisher:

A vanity publisher is a company that makes a profit by charging authors for publishing services. This isn't to say that a vanity published book has never sold a copy or made the author a cent. Some probably have but the difference between a traditional publisher and a vanity publisher is that a vanity publisher charges for things that a publisher traditionally covers. Vanity publishers don't pay advances and they don't have very high standards (if any) about what they publish, so they'll publish just about anything. They also don't promote books or help in selling them in any way. But traditional publishers often don't do that last very much either.

Proof copy:

This refers to a printed book that is sent to you buy the printer (or publisher possibly) for you to check for mistakes before the book is approved as final. Proof copies usually have a page or a stamp that says "proof" on it, so they can't be sold as "regular books." Printers often charge less for them and so they don't want you just ordering a bunch of proof copies and selling them as if they were the final book. Proof copies can be sent to reviewers to get early reviews.

Ebook formats:

When I first got into indie publishing I was a bit worried by all the talk of formatting headaches and woes. I thought this meant that formatting was going to be as hard as learning webdesign had been. It wasn't.

Maybe it's just me but I don't find formatting to be that terrible. Okay, some of the work can be tedious. If like me, you started writing in MS Word without a care in the world and just typed, you might well have used tabs to indent your paragraphs and then after a few paragraphs Word picked up on that and started automatically indenting. But when you started a new chapter, you had to go back to pressing the tab button. This is the dumb way to do things, Arie... Yes, I know but I didn't even know I was writing something serious at first.  So, anyway, if you foolishly did that, like me, then when you're finalizing your work, you have to go back and weed out all the tabs. Tabs are a big no no in ebook formatting. Put on some good music, get into a meditative mood and skim down the left-hand side of your screen and delete all tabs. Not hard, just tedious.

There are more complex parts of ebook formatting and I"m not going to cover them all here, but the essential thing to know is that, if you can organize a kitchen cabinet, you can format an ebook. Know the most important format names.

Mobi is the standard Kindle format. 

Epub is the format for Android-based systems.

Ibooks is the Apple format.

I use Scrivener to organize large projects and Scrivener converts to Mobi and Epub formats easily. You can also now use Smashwords to automatically convert and they'll do Ibooks too. But in either case, you have to start with a very cleanly formatted manuscript. Do not try to insert extra lines anywhere. Learn to use page breaks. You can run into trouble with graphic elements and things like drop caps. So, it is best to avoid those until you are used to formatting.

Cover design:

It used to be that writers wrote. Not so much any more. Today, if you want to make a living as a writer you need to at the very least also be a marketer. Think of it as going back to the medieval days of traveling bards. Back then, storytellers had to market their work as well. That makes it sound a lot more romantic at least. But I digress...

The other thing you have to do if you are publishing independently is worry about the design of your cover. There are hundreds of designers out there on Fiverr who will supposedly do it for $5  but if you look at their portfolios they are distinctly uninspired and you will have to provide all photos or artwork and tell them exactly how to do it. Ideas are not part of what they do. There are dozens of designers with webpages offering to design a more legitimate cover for anywhere from $100 to $1000. The average is around $200 to $300 at this point. Depending on your genre and your tastes, you can find a cover designer in that price range. 

Call me picky but I couldn't find a designer portfollio for less than $500 that I liked even slightly and $500 is out of my price range for a single cover. So, I downloaded a free Photoshop equivalent called Gimp and spent three months learning how to run it. Many experts warn authors away from doing this and I may be a fool. I'm also an artist and a photographer, so maybe I'm not. I don't entirely recommend that everyone try to design their own covers. There are way too many badly designed self-published covers out there. If you do want to try it, expect it to take at least a few months to learn and study book covers and graphic design principles. Consider it every bit as important as any of the writing of the inside of the book. Technically it is actually more important in terms of initially reaching readers.

You can buy the rights to photos to use on a cover from sites like and There is a lot of talk of creative commons photos and there are lists of servers where you can supposedly find free photos. I have spent hours searching these frree sites and not only did I not find many good photos on them, I did not find one single photo that was not marked as copyright protected.  These supposedly free site shave been taken over by photographers trying to sell their work. Be very careful about using photos from sites that claim to be showing creative commons images because many of the photos on these sites are copyrighted and downloading them from a site that says the photos listed should be creative commons is no protection. Read the small print. And that will take hours. The paid sites are not that expensive (less than $40 for 5 very large, very high quality photos of my choice from Shutterstock) and they are a sure bet.

In the end, I hired a model (i.e. a student friend) shot my own main photographs and then paid for a few more pictures from Shutterstock. I"ve very happy with the results so far. 


If you are going to try designing your own cover, look up kerning and study it until you get it. Kerning is the technique of changing the distance between letters. It is a funny thing but you can take a perfectly professional photo and artfully arrange a title and an author's name on it and it will still not look like a real book cover, until you add kerning. Even the non-professional eye will know the difference if allowed to compare.

The overall explanation is that kerning is supposed to make it look as though the letters in a word are equally separated when actually it pulls some letters closer together or pushes others further apart. This is because some letters fit together nicely and others have bits that stick out and if such an awkward letter happens to be right next to another awkward letter they don't fit together easily.

Say in this font, "rt" tend to run into each other. You can't put them closer together and have them look nice, but "To" looks much better if the "o" is tucked protectively under the top line of the "T". You have to do this by hand on book cover titles and other large text. You need a solid graphic design program to do it and you have to know when and where to do it. That's kerning and it's one of the things you have to study if you want to try designing your own covers.


This is a term coined by self-publishing trail blazer Joanna Penn. It refers to the mixture of cooperation and competition that has become the professional standard among independent and small-press authors.

The theory behind coopetition is that readers tend to read a lot of books and often in the same genre. Traditionally, readers were stuck following those authors most heavily promoted by the publishing industry and that is still where the bulk of the market is. Today, however, readers who discover one independent author usually discover other independent and small-press authors, particularly those in similar genres. This creates an interesting dynamic among author-entrepreneurs.

We have been brought up to believe that business as primarily a competitive proposition but that mindset doesn't serve well in the current circumstances. The pool of readers is infinite because readers read many books and they read more books if they like what they read. The result is that it is in the interests of the individual author-entrepreneur to help and promote their fellow independent and small-press authors as much as possible.

In fact, the closer the competition may seem, the more it is in my interest to support and promote another author. That may seem counter intuitive but it makes good economics. The fact is that if a reader discovers a book that is similar to mine (contemporary dystopia or fantasy thriller) written by an independent author, they are much much more likely to discover mine than is the average person on the street. And readers who have already discovered my books are more likely to stick around and be satisfied readers, if they can read something similar that recommended to them, while waiting for my next book to come out.

This concept wasn't entirely foreign to me when I started on this adventure, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how well it works. A side benefit is that the more you post on your blog and website, the more readers you attract in general. So, I post about interesting indie authors on this blog both because I want to give my readers something to chew on while I prepare the next book for publication and because that boosts my site in general. I also post everywhere else I can about these interesting indie authors because if a reader sees their work and likes it, they are halfway to finding my work.

Key abbreviations: 


Work In Progress: This refers to whatever a writer is currently working on and has not yet completed or published.


Print On Demand: This is a way of publishing a book in print format without having to pay for boxes of printed books that may or may not ever be sold before they gather too much dust and moisture and become undesirable. POD used to be fairly expensive and inferior in quality to comerically available paperbacks but today there are several companies offering POD services that make affordable books that are virtually indistinguishable from their mass-printed peers.


Point Of View: This refers to which character's mind and senses the reader shares in a given section of writing. A lot of classic literature uses a distant or omniscient POV where the reader can see the story from many points of view but often not in great emotional detail from any one character. Recently, close third person and first person POVs have become more popular with stories that allow the reader to identify closely with the characters and their emotions. 


Read for Review: This refers to the practice of authors giving out free review copies of their book either before publication or early on when they have few reviews. Authors may give R4R copies to bloggers or other professional reviewers but they will often also give out free copies to random readers on sites such as Goodreads or LibraryThing.  There is an "honor system" involved. In exchange for a free book, the reader/reviewer agrees to post honest reviews, usually on Amazon at the very least and sometimes other sites.

It is key to note that there is no agreement about what kind of review gets posted. It may be hard to write a critical review when one got the book for free but the whole point is to help readers find books that they will like, so a modicum of honesty is an important part of the equation. R4R agreements are usually informal and made online between the author and the reader/reviewer. Sometimes the agreement calls for the review to be posted within a certain time period, usually two weeks from receipt of a free book, but authors will often wait longer for reviews from well-known reviewers.

If you have made it this far in this post, you are a serious reader and possibly a serious writer. So, if you would like to try out R4R yourself, drop me an email on this page and ask for a free Read for Review copy of my book.

Good luck in your writing adventures!